Archive for Christmas Holiday

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I have nothing to say.” Pierre Batcheff sulks in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Dorothy McGuire gives us the silent treatment in Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

I was very intrigued by this piece by Glenn Kenny, pointing out links between UN CHIEN ANDALOU and Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, shots of the moon), so it hit me with some force when I suddenly recognized the connection between the above movies, which should have been obvious to me years ago since I know them both well… Siodmak and Bunuel were indeed near-contemporaries, with the German filmmaker establishing his career in Paris just after Bunuel had left. I think they just missed each other in Hollywood as well. But the two striking connections are enough to make the case for a definite influence of the Spanish surrealist upon the German noir master.

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

Frank’s Wilderness Years

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by dcairns

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In a fit of perversity I reached for my old, unwatched VHS tape of HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, which is ironically one of the very few Frank Borzage films you can buy in the U.K. on DVD (blame the Deanna Durbin Box Set for this one’s availability). I thought I might like to try a very minor F.B. film since I was in danger of overdosing on masterpieces. LIVING ON VELVET and THE MORTAL STORM and MAN’S CASTLE and A FAREWELL TO ARMS are quite rich, quite emotional, and to some extent aim for the same kinds of sublimity and ecstasy, and the last thing I wanted was to burn out. This one seemed like a total change of pace.

I also wanted to see something from the years before MOONRISE but after Borzage’s peak period (usually given as late ’20s to very early ’40s), when he was also supposed to be combatting a drinking problem, and when he seems to have been assigned a few atypical projects that may not have been perfectly suited to his talents. This light musical comedy might be one of them.

It also has a weirdly duff title, a phrase that makes my head throb dully as I scan it for any implied drama or humour or promise of entertainment. Why would you call a film HIS BUTLER’S SISTER? If you would, then why not follow it with HER PODIATRIST’S COUSIN or THEIR MILKMAN’S FATHER-IN-LAW? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking something that isn’t interesting, and then placing it at two removes so you can’t quite get it in focus. I mean, Deanna Durbin actually plays a singer: that’s quite interesting, or at least lots of people in the ’40s thought it was. But we pass over that in this wretched title, focussing instead on her status as a sibling. OK, so she has a brother. And he’s a butler, you say? Well, I don’t see what business that is of mine, but I’m willing to accept your word for it. And then the addition of HIS, adding to the whole rigmarole a third character about whom we are to know nothing except that he has a butler who has a sister. WHY???

The only way I can think of to further disimprove this title would be either to add a third layer of character filtration, as in HIS BUTLER’S SISTER’S SCHNAUSER, or to just give up and call it HIS BUTLER’S QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

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But, as the credits role, hope springs! Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein (Google his credits and goggle in awe) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (far fewer amazing titles, but she collaborated with the Hoff on CLUNY BROWN, a favourite here at the Shadowplayhouse). Then we get an amusing novelty number, sung and danced at Franchot Tone in a train corridor. Franchot is a songwriter who’s sick of amateurs pitching their numbers at him. He’s also a broadway producer or something, on his way to Cleveland (?), and Deanna Durbin is a young hopeful bound for New York and HERE SHE COMES –

Borzage follows her back through two entire carriages, preparatory to the big reveal of her face, and WOW she’s at her absolute peak of beauty. I’m not, despite my celebration of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, a special Durbinite (my maternal grandmother loved her films though), finding her usual stuff a bit maybe saccharine, but she has enormous charm and this movie seems to be the one that captures her beauty just as she had left childhood behind. Oh boy, now I’m going to Google her and learn she was 14 and I’ll look like a pervert. No, we’re OK, she’s 22.

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Anyway the film is light and nice, although the writers perhaps need the Lubitsch touch to hit the heights, and the plot depends heavily on coincidence. Then there’s the menfolk. Pat O’Brien? Why not just fill a burlap sack with gravel and point a camera at that? And Franchot Tone? I have a sort of affection for him based on his playing a daffy psycho in PHANTOM LADY, which is a gloriously comic-book noir that captures some of the unreality of Cornell Wollrich’s novel. But Tone is a strange choice to pair with Durbin: don’t we want somebody a little more innocuous? Still, it’s a relief he makes it through the movie without having his head kicked in (this was always happening to Tone in real life: one episode of The Twilight Zone that he stars in shows him perpetually in profile, like Dick Tracy, because the more distant side of his face looked like the Somme). 

But Deanna’s introductory shot, which smacks of THE NARROW MARGIN only nine years earlier, is enough to convince me that Borzage’s rumoured drinking problem didn’t stop him coming up with bold and beautiful visual stratagems. I’m now inclined to believe that absolutely everything he’s made deserves full investigation. STAGE DOOR CANTEEN beckons…

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