Archive for F Scott Fitzgerald

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns

OUROWNMOVIEQUEEN

Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.

King Fu Fighting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by dcairns

Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)

But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.

This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu  the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…

So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.

The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.

About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.

This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.

The Monkeybitch Enigma

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

As the early Joe Mankiewicz noir SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT unfolded, I started praying it would keep up its high standards to the end, but I wasn’t all that optimistic because (a) part of the film’s charm was a sense that it didn’t know where it was going and (b) it doesn’t have much of a reputation, often a sign that a film has fallen at the final hurdle — the climax of a movie often determines disproportionately how people will feel about the film as a whole.

In fact, much of the film’s third act comes together nicely, and there’s ample evidence that the sense of random aimlessness that enlivens the early-middle sections is actually a cunning ploy disguising a tightly-plotted plan. But the climax is over too soon, handed to a supporting character, robbing the hero of the chance to distinguish himself. Since he’s played by the odd-looking John Hodiak, distinctly second-rank, he needs all the opportunities the screenplay can give him. He has the face of a monkeybitch.

Actually, Hodiak’s lack of charisma helps the film in some ways — he’s effective as a lost and confused nobody, struggling to make sense of the world. (This is an AMNESIA MOVIE. Yay!) A big-shot movie-star might well have seemed more likely to come out on top. The greater error is casting Richard Conte as the leading lady’s friend. She keeps talking about what a nice guy he is. We think, “Uh huh, rrrright…” and as it turns out our skepticism is justified.

But knowing all that, one can derive a lot of pleasure from this film. Hodiak plays a G.I. with a misplaced memory, thrust into what you might call your basic shadowy realm of subterfuge as he tries to uncover the secrets of his past. This galloping cliché of a plot gets a shot in the arm from some strong visuals early on — Mankiewicz plays with subjective camera and seems in a more experimental mood than usual — and from the writer’s intelligence, constantly seeking to bolster characterisation and liven up dialogue. One of his notions is to suggest that the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and feel themselves slightly above it. There is musing on why movie detectives always keep their hats on. The action stops for a Chinese meal. The bad guys are charming and urbane, or cheap but sassy.

And then there’s THIS lovely fellow/shot:

Fritz Kortner’s master-criminal character actually suggests sitting in this spot because the lighting will be suitably mysterious. And he has the face of a monkeybitch.

For much of its running time this is a throughly superior caper — one major plot twist is thoroughly pleasing, and surely original (I guess it’s been copied a few times since), and the sense that everybody’s just making it up as they go along is probably more to do with the unusual fluctuations of tone than the lack of an overall scheme (although one major bad guy remains uncaptured at the end — “We’ll pick him up,” suggests the detective, but will they? WILL THEY?). Amid the banter and suspense scenes, there’s one heart-breaking scene where the wandering hero finally finds somebody who recognises him — only to learn she’s a lonely neurotic, fantasising a connection with him in order to stave off the emptiness of her existence. Nicely done.

*

Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.

*

Mankiewicz always said that if he was remembered at all it would be as “the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue” in THREE COMRADES. Fortunately, he was wrong. But he’s remembered as “the dialogue guy” who did ALL ABOUT EVE, and there’s a bit more to him than that.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers