Archive for Franchot Tone

The Hepburn-RKO-J.M. Barrie Axis of Whimsy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2013 by dcairns

Two J.M. Barrie adaptations, filmed at RKO, starring Katherine Hepburn, QUALITY STREET and THE LITTLE MINISTER.

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THE LITTLE MINISTER, directed by Richard Wallace, is set in Barrie’s native Scotland and showcases Kate’s Bryn Mawr version of a Highland burr. Several real Scots provide doughty support — Andy Clyde is particularly enjoyable, and Sherlock Holmes regulars Alec Craig (in his first movie role, according to the IMDb) and Mary Gordon make welcome appearances. Donald Crisp looks exactly as he did thirty years later in GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY, but sounds different — he nailed the accent sometime in the intervening years.

But why no James Finlayson?

Poor John Beal struggles with the R-rolling, and is blown off the screen by Hepburn in gypsy drag. Flashes of authentic Scottish scenery, including brief use of the zoom lens (quite popular at RKO at this time — see also KING KONG).

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QUALITY STREET is, we thought, the superior production. Never mind that Barrie’s conceit, Hepburn scrubbing up and impersonating a fictitious younger relative to fool Franchot Tone, even though Tone knows perfectly well what she looks like, is unworkable on-screen (suspension of disbelief and the perpetual long-shot would sell it on stage). Never mind that the whole cast is doing convincing English accents except tone-deaf Tone. Enjoy the Napoleonic era gadgets (women’s veils which swish open on a drawstring like net curtains, English geisha shoes for walking in the rain) and the dialogue and performances and director George Stevens’ elegant, witty framing.

In the prologue, Hepburn is disappointed in love as her beau decides to go off to the wars — she sits by the window with her aunt, and the Greenaway-symmetry does something expressive and very un-Greenawayesque: it captures their resignation to staying unmarried for life. Possibly while sitting in the window.

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Cheese and Coconuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by dcairns

Without planning to, we watched MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY with friends Stuart and Marvelous Mary. At first the film came on kind of dumb, and it’s not above being ridiculous at regular intervals, but it also has a degree of sophistication and cunning in the way it navigates the historical facts — departing from them fairly freely at times, to be sure. It’s nowhere near as nuanced as the remake, which Fiona and I enjoyed, but then neither film is as ambiguous and cloudy as the historical facts.

The scenario, in which that old hand at tales of sadism and the psychological bizarre, Jules Furthman (check his many credits for Sternberg) took part, in some ways wants us to see Bligh (a wonderfully constipated Charles Laughton) as a thief and lout, promoted beyond his station and outclassed in every sense by the gentlemen around him. That is indeed one of the easiest narratives to carve from the complicated true story. But early, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, grinning a lot), says that Bligh’s status as a self-made man is the one thing he admires about him. So the filmmakers actually want to stifle that unamerican idea.

As Mary pointed out, the casting of Gable, an American, against Laughton, an Englishman, actually makes the story a parable about the founding of America. Everything about Gable’s unwavering screen persona erases the character he’s playing (whereas Brando embraced the character and the public didn’t embrace him), so that this becomes a parable of throwing off snooty British domination. All the arguments about food, culminating in Laughton’s hilarious “It’s your watch, so I must count the coconuts,” echo the Boston tea party and the disputes on taxation.

But if we follow this line of reasoning, Pitcairn Island, eventual home of the mutineers, must equal America, and that would mean that America was founded on abduction, rape, murder and brutality. Which I’m sure MGM did not intend us to infer.

The scenario cunningly supplies Franchot Tone to provide Gable with bromance and suggest a Third Way between outright rebellion and lip-smacking tyranny. Tone does not rebel, denounces Bligh back in England, and is ultimately spared the gallows and restored to active duty — but the movie doesn’t bother to say what happened to his fellow condemned men. Presumably they wound up decorating that particularly high yardarm Bligh so wanted to see them dangle from. (Surely a yardarm of merely average height would have done the job just as well, and been more convenient?)

Movita. Sounds like a high-fibre bran breakfast, but is actually far more pleasant. As noted previously, Brando married the leading lady of the 30s MUTINY and the leading lady of the 60s MUTINY. Probably a method thing.

The other obvious reading here is the gay one, and not just because of Laughton’s casting. The bromance stuff is strikingly suggestive — topless Gable and Tone are sunning themselves, and Gable places a banana on Tone’s chest, before pealing and eating one himself. Then they’re hastily joined by girlfriends in case we get the right wrong idea. Bligh alone shows no interest in native totty, never even sharing the screen with a woman. So perhaps Bligh is driven by thwarted passion. It’s a reading that certainly couldn’t work in the remake, but seems fairly apropos here.

Buy British: Mutiny On The Bounty [1935] [DVD]

Buy American: Mutiny on the Bounty (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray Book] (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Brando-Howard)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray] (Brando-Howard)

Raymond Burr IS “Barney Chavez”…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2008 by dcairns

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…in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.

Barney is “an animal”, according to those who know and love him, so who better to play him than the Mighty Burr, previously winner of a Shadowplay Award  for services to eating?

My problem with this film is… where is it set? Africa, presumably, since a gorilla features so prominently in the title and the film itself (Hugo Barney is transformed into a man in an ape suit by malicious witch-doctoring). What then, to make of Lon Chaney’s appearance as a “native policeman”? Chaney (seen below right attempting to cram a table up his arse) boldly plays this native without recourse to Al Jolson war-paint.

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Writer-director Curt Siodmak (Idiot Brother* of the distinguished Robert) places his authorial stamp on the material from the off, with a tacky montage of jungle stock footage. “This is the jungle,” slurs Chaney in V.O., immediately establishing himself as A Man You Can Trust. Yes, but which jungle, Lon?

Geographical issues continue to arise: how to explain the vaguely Mexican “natives”, and the presence of California-accented Woody Strode as another native policeman – and Gisela Verbisek as “Al-Long” the witch doctress: a cheap Maria Ouspenskaya knock-off (although she looks more like the elderly Buster Keaton in drag), this blatantly Hungarian woman brings a welcome touch of the Old Country to the Dark Continent, while her hot daughter “Lorena” (Carol Varga), Barney’s lover, wears a Maria Montez type sarong ensemble?

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The film’s true leading lady, Barbara Payton, provides a fantastic go-go vibe, kind of unexpected in what is essentially an exotic rehash of Siodmak’s screenplay for THE WOLFMAN. Payton, a decent actress (everybody in this films is slumming, Tom Conway most of all) had a lively and ultimately tragic life and career. It was she whom Tom Neal and Franchot Tone fought over, with Tone ending up hospitalised and almost dead. Payton married Tone, then ditched him and went back to Neal, leaving him soon enough to avoid getting murdered (Neal shot his third wife in the head) but drifting into homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution — having already drifted into BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, which is bad enough.

Amazingly, Curt Siodmak is a better director than he is a writer, even though he made his living mostly as an author. His name is attached to one true classic, the oneiric calypso tragedy that is I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, although Val Lewton extensively reworked his script (Siodmak’s original plot had Tom Conway zombifying his wife so he could continue to have sex with her animate corpse, which Lewton nixed on the grounds that, “She would have no vaginal warmth!” A valid objection, though not the first that would cross my mind). Otherwise, he wrote speeches for Bela Lugosi so bad they had to be cut from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and sci-fi paperbacks full of ludicrous prose: “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” is a surreal favourite of mine. In BRIDE we get monologues like “Out there… in the jungle… out there, everything’s different. My hands, my eyes… I can see further than I’ve ever seen before… I can climb as if I had wings… A thousand smells… flowers, plants, the animals. The jungle is my house!”

But as director he approaches competence. Sometimes he bypasses it and achieves actual STYLE, prowling through the jungle (WHICH jungle? PLEASE!) in subjective shots with big hairy paws in the foreground, even going handheld, like his countryman John Brahm in THE UNDYING MONSTER. And it’s to his credit that he tries to keep the gorilla suit offscreen as much as possible. His dialogues are always played as “flat twos”, it’s true, with an occasional third character standing in the middle, which gets pretty funny during long scenes, where new characters keep coming in and standing where the old ones were a second ago.

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OK, I admit it: the film is clearly identified as being set in the Amazon. There’s no geographical problem, except the gypsy woman and Woody Strode and the fact that IT’S ABOUT A BIG MAGIC GORILLA.

I was also wondering why, asides from the obvious reason of not wanting to terrify the audience TOO much, Barney has his clothes on after he changes back from being the gorilla, who doesn’t have any clothes on. Then I decided that what the film hadn’t told us was that the Amazonian gypsy curse actually causes Barney to go out into the jungle and PUT ON A GORILLA SUIT. Which would explain why the gorilla in this film is obviously a guy in a suit. But then, shouldn’t the film be called THE BRIDE OF RAYMOND BURR IN A GORILLA SUIT?

It should. Because not only is that more accurate, it’s also a far more enticing title.

*I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the Idiot Brother, maybe because my siblings are both productive members of society, making me one. William Lee Wilder, brother of Billy (their mother REALLY liked that name) is another great I.B. — for every LOST WEEKEND, SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE APARTMENT made by the multi-Oscar winning Billy, W. Lee was ready to respond with a PHANTOM FROM SPACE, a MAN WITHOUT A BODYor a MANFISH, like a one-man campaign to disprove genetics.

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