Archive for Colin Clive

The Gift of Life

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2013 by dcairns

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Finest Christmas gift this year was the Universal Monsters Blu-Ray, which got slapped into the Maidstone player as soon as decency allowed. While Fiona was out and her brother was dozing, I previewed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, a snoozy film but a very fine transfer, with super-saturated Technicolor seeping from every frame.

Then, in the evening, FRANKENSTEIN! Roddy enjoys this one very much, and Fiona and I are big Whale fans. I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD, and now Blu. I’m not sure I’d watched it in the last ten years, though, so it all seemed quite fresh, helped by the munificent new detail…

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Had we seen that the bouncy skeleton at the medical school has something clenched between his teeth? I don’t think so, and I’m still not sure what it is he’s got there: Fiona proposes a rubber surgical glove, I thought it might be a rolled-up piece of paper. You would need a screen as wide as Victor Buono’s ass to be sure, and we only have the James Coco model.

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We saw the little dust-clouds stirred up by Karloff’s feet as he tries to escape. We laughed hysterically at Dwight Frye’s mood swings, his tiny walking stick which makes movement more difficult, and the way he pauses to pull up one sock before hurrying to assist at the monster’s birth. We gazed in wonderment at the sheer majestic scale of John Boles’ big dull head. We marveled at the fact that Edward Van Sloan, a Dutchman from Minnesota, choose to play a German doctor with a prissy Scottish accent.

Maybe it was the new clarity of the image, or the fact that I’d forgotten the original experience of viewing the film, or my arguable greater maturity, but the emotional arc of the movie, which is all Karloff’s, though smuggled in as a subtext beneath the romantic sufferings of Colin Clive and Mae Clarke (eyes scanning fearfully in search of approaching grapefruits) , hit home with greater clarity. I had remembered the sublime reaching for the light, and the scene by the lake with the little girl, but in isolation. I also remembered that Karloff spends a lot of the time snarling in an almost feline manner. But putting the famous moments in order and experiencing them again meant seeing how the monster moves from innocence through fear to anger. And realizing that the moment when the little girl offers him a flower inspires his first ever smile brings a lump to his throat.

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Clive and Karloff stare at each other through the windmill’s central cog, and it resembles a giant wooden zoetrope: their POV’s blur into each other as the rotating timber flashes by — monster and maker become one, and mad science and cinema are conflated.

There’s also the horrible nastiness of the monster’s fate, burned to death in that windmill (he’s created in a mill too), when fire is his greatest fear. I’m glad Whale was to revive him, only slightly singed, to meet a death of his own choosing, blown to atoms. Of course Karloff played the part again, and the monster continued to lumber about after Boris kicked off his tar-spreader’s boots, but Whale’s diptych is a self-contained thing of beauty, and the characters are all finished with when he’s finished with them.

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Buy: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

The Skinny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2009 by dcairns

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Yes, I am watching all Hitchcock’s theatrical features one a week, all year. No, I am not crazy. Yet.

How do we feel about Hitchcock’s filmed plays? So far, only BLACKMAIL and THE LODGER, of his theatrically derived works, strike me as successes, but they do strike me as his GREATEST successes thus far too. But those are adaptations where Hitchcock adapted most freely. His usual approach to plays, except in the case of EASY VIRTUE, was to stick faithfully to the text, whereas in filming novels he felt compelled to restructure and rewrite almost everything.

The reason for this probably lies in the greater structural rigor of theatre as a medium. Since a play is typically absorbed at one sitting, the structure has to feel right as the piece is experienced, and has to flow. A novel is consumed over several sessions, and so may have more freedom to explore byways and even cul-de-sacs. Tampering with the structure of a novel is pretty much essential in adapting it, since there’s often too much incident to present in a film or normal duration. Tampering with the structure or even the stagecraft of a play may destroy the very artistic unity that makes it worthwhile.

Of THE SKIN GAME, Hitch said that he was compelled to make it, which doesn’t stop Noel Simsolo on the DVD wondering why Hitchcock was “attracted to the project”. He wasn’t, Noel. Opening the play out a bit, Hitchcock nevertheless is defeated, not by its theatrical qualities, but by its lack of Hitchcockian ones — there is no strong character to identify with.

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Phyllis Konstam can heave bosom with the best of them.

The film does tackle a theme of considerable interest to Hitchcock, the class battles of England. Rich pottery magnate Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn, whom Hitch would cast repeatedly over the years) wants to build on a piece of idyllic land next door to the aristocratic Hillcrists’ property, and they don’t want to have their view spoiled. Mrs Hillcrist is quite prepared to stoop to blackmail against those she considers her social inferiors, threatening to ruin Hornblower’s daughter-on-law by exposing her shady past.

It’s a filmed play, and it’s mostly talk, and Hitchcock at this stage in his career has not found a brilliant solution to the filming of talk. BLACKMAIL is still his best talkie, because most of the scenes are conceived as images, visual relationships between characters which can be augmented with dialogue but which pre-exist it in the film-maker’s mind. JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK used mostly master-shots, in which the positioning of the actors could sometimes be expressive, but the movement and posing was rooted in the stage. MURDER! and THE SKIN GAME suffer from the idea of photographing talk, as if all a dialogue scene consisted of was the speech. “Photographs of people talking,” as Hitchcock put it.

Here, the technical side seems to way heavy. Gone are the sweeping locations of THE MANXMANor the pastoral views of THE FARMER’S WIFE — sound demands that Hitch confine himself to a studio, so the beauty of the landscape upon which the plot depends is presented by still photographs and effects shots. The difficulty of editing sound and impossibility of mixing it require Hitch to use as few cuts as possible, so he tries to dolly from wide to close and back again, and pan from one character to another, as much as he humanly can. The strain on his operators is clearly visible.

Despite being based on a “well-made play,” THE SKIN GAME suffers from a lack of clear point-of-view. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists are all pretty unsympathetic, with only Hornblower’s daughter-in-law as an appealing innocent, despite her dubious past (to provide evidence of adultery in divorce cases, she “went with men to hotels” for money). But she enters the plot far too late. Phyllis Konstam, a stage actress recruited to films by the theatre-going Hitch, she’s glamorous and pretty good, although touches of artificiality keep creeping in. Edmund Gwenn is of course excellent, although incapable of the abrasiveness that would make Hornblower a strong motivating force for the snobbish Hillcrists. Regular leading man John Longden turns up too, but gets little screen time. Jill Esmond, first wife of Laurence Olivier, is sexless and uninvolved as the Hillcrist’s horsey daughter.

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As with any early Hitchcock that’s a bit lacking, compensation comes in the subjective effects. When Konstam recognises a face from her past in the crowd, it zooms out at her like a Floating Head of Death. When Gwenn looks out his window at the threatened meadowland, he sees it replaced by factories, an imaginary transition that anticipates the splendid melting London shot in SABOTAGE.

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And the auction scene is a tour-de-force, with a long take from the auctioneer’s POV, darting around the room to spot the various bids, followed by a dramatic montage of close-ups as things get really fraught.

As far as John Galsworthy adaptations go, I’m not sure I think they’re a good idea, but James Whale’s ONE MORE RIVER, which benefits from being made later, with more advanced technical facilities, is greatly superior to THE SKIN GAME. Hitchcock’s film does not have Colin Clive as a sexual sadist, nor any line as good as this: “I don’t know if it’s flatulence or the hand of God.”

“I was blown up eating cheese.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2008 by dcairns

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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