Leisen shows his hand.
Mitchell Leisen’s Regency romp KITTY and Joseph Losey’s espionage caper MODESTY BLAISE don’t have much in common, or anything in common, really, but I am resolved to make a Fever Dream Double Feature of them.
I guess they do both have women’s names as titles, but the spurious point I’m going to concentrate on is the strange preponderance of Scots in both films. The Scots have been widely ignored in both British and American cinema (although not as badly as the Welsh, it should be admitted), so it’s always surprising to find a film with not only a single token Scot, but a handful of them stinking up the place.
Monica Vitti — not Scottish, alas.
MODESTY BLAISE continues Joseph Losey’s interest in the Celtic peoples, already well established by his use of Stanley Baker, whose Welshness he emphasised in BLIND DATE and EVA. Losey had a real passion for the intricacies of British society, particularly with regard to class, but also with the different tribes of Briton. Gordon Jackson’s little turn in BLIND DATE is an early example of the Scottish influence.
The first Scottish voice heard in MODESTY BLAISE is that of Alexander Knox, in reality a Canadian of Scots descent who had bought a home in the tiny town of Longniddry, just down the coast from Edinburgh. I made a film there once. Despite advantages of ancestry and habitation, Knox’s comedy Scotsman is more imaginative than realistic, bearing a close resemblance to Freddie Jones’s rogue psychiatrist in THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. In other words, it’s a silly voice, and as such, quite amusing. The way to do a comedy Scotsman is to speak in a very high voice, with clipped diction, so each word is a Separate! Little! Squeak! The accent is usually Morningside, a somewhat fictitious form of posh Scots associated with the Edinburgh district of that name, and with Maggie Smith’s performances in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and the HARRY POTTER films.
But making the Foreign Office chappie a Scot isn’t enough for Losey. He also has New Zealand man-of-many-accents Clive Revill play the arch-villain’s accountant, McWhirter (he also doubles as a comedy Sheik). Revill was a character star for about ten years, landing plum supporting roles and bringing a caricaturist’s observation to bear upon various Italian hoteliers, Russian balletomanes, English psychic investigators, etc. Then he suddenly stopped being somebody audiences had heard of, although he continues to this day, providing many voices for both animated and live action Hollywood films.
The third Scot is a surprise, since Terence Stamp’s character, Willie Garvin, while cockney through and through, sports a Scottish surname, dating back to 1651. Based on all this, MODESTY BLAISE must be Losey’s most Scottish film. Since the movie is to some extent a Bond spoof, maybe this is directed at Sean Connery, in some obscure way?
KITTY (1945) is a terrific period comedy-drama from the great Mitchell Leisen, who threw himself into the design and historical research work, without this time losing sight of the story and performances. Paulette Goddard gives possibly her very best performance, with a mostly convincing and always enjoyable cockney accent borrowed from Ida Lupino’s mum, and displaying physical comedy skills perhaps derived from her years as Mrs Charles Chaplin. Her Kitty starts as a buckle-thief, stealing footwear from gents dismounting from carriages, and rises through society until she’s on nodding terms with royalty, her voice having had the Henry Higgins treatment.
But the accents that concern me are northern ones. First, Mr. McNab, tailor to the film’s leading man, Ray Milland. McNab, as is too often the way with tailors, wants paid. Milland delays the dreadful hour by complaining about the quality of McNab’s workmanship. The jacket and waistcoat must be refitted before he will pay a penny. He will drop in on Mr McNab when he has time. The crisis is deferred and the stingy Scot sent packing. Alec Craig, a real Scot from Dunfermline, Fife, plays the role. By a startling coincidence, I’d just seen him play a man on a park bench in Jean Negulesco’s witty THREE STRANGERS (1946), his final performance (he died before the film came out).
Next, Milland turns his mind to fleecing another Celt, his neighbour, an ironmonger named Selby. By marrying Pygmalion-style reformed guttersnipe Paulette Goddard to the tradesman, Milland is able to secure a dower, plus whatever Paulette can steal from Selby’s strongbox. It all ends badly — for Selby. He’s played by an Englishman (gasp!), Dennis Hoey, who’s best known for playing Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.
Now widowed, Kitty/Paulette continues her rise up the social ladder by marrying the Duke of Malmunster, Reginald Owen. Owen’s a delightful comic player whom I mainly know from THE GOOD FAIRY. “Did you see his eyes,” remarks Frank Morgan in Preston Sturges superb script, “Like angry marbles!” Here he’s less angry but he’s very old, so the news of his son’s birth (in reality, the ironmonger’s) is a bit much for him. This sequence allows Leisen the opportunity for some amazing sustained camera moves, showing off his fantastic sets, gorgeous lighting, but also creating a slightly eerie effect. The character’s ill-health having been established in advance, the longer the sequence goes on, the larger Malmunster’s home is revealed to be, the more certain his eventual demise comes to seem.
It’s at this point that we meet the Scottish nanny. This film is dripping with Scots. This one is Glaswegian bit-part specialist Mary Gordon (no relation to namesake M, habitue of the Comments section here!), another graduate of the Sherlock Holmes series, having played faithful landlady Mrs Hudson. She can also be seen in THE BODY SNATCHER, bringing some much-needed local colour to the film (I might be the best person to write about that film’s Scottishness, its relation to Stevenson’s story and to history — I should do this), and she crops up in BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN too, bringing still more disruption to a film that positively revels in the wanton clash of accent upon accent.
Thus to the memorial service, which is accompanied by bagpipes. I wonder if Leisen is attempting to make up for the sins of ARISE MY LOVE, in which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script relocated the Hebrides to “off the coast of Ireland”.
OK, Mitch, we forgive you.