Archive for Francis L Sullivan

Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.


The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.

Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.

Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.

Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.

You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.

Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!

The Sunday Intertitle: Jesus Speaks

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by dcairns

I know, I know. Not great quality.

From THE WANDERING JEW (1933), directed by Maurice Elvey, who’s best known for THE CLAIRVOYANT (Claude Rains and Fay Wray) and a lively silent version of HINDLE WAKES, a much-filmed regional comedy. By the end of his career, Elvey had declined to slapstick comedies with Tommy Trinder.

But THE WANDERING JEW is another kettle of fish and loaves. Conrad Veidt gives it his all as the titular semitic itinerant, in a tale which takes its starting point from the medieval yarn about the Jew cursed to walk the earth, immortal, until the Second Coming, his punishment for spitting on Christ. The story is obviously anti-semitic at heart, but the filmmakers try to turn things around and make Veidt an analogue for the suffering of the Jewish people. He is redeemed during the Spanish Inquisition (helmed by reliable fat baddie Francis L Sullivan, whose work here may have landed him a similar role of corpulent corruption in Sternberg’s abortive I, CLAUDIUS) where the film seems to be taking aim at the modern embodiments of prejudice and hatred. A pity they didn’t go all the way and bring the WJ into modern times, where he could denounce Hitler and Goebbels. But I guess in 1933 Britain was in a more… placatory mood.

Of course, the implicit and explicit Christianity of the story kind of warps the pro-semitic good intentions, but you can see somebody meant well, meant to make a brave and powerful statement, and then just kind of got a bit lost.

Anyway, the image above demonstrates Jesus cursing the WJ — we never see the Christ directly, and even his speech is represented by an intertitle, or, more correctly, a surtitle, which shrinks onto the screen until we can read it, or almost. “I will not wait on you, but you shall wait for me until I come to you again.” Conrad then helpfully repeats the text for the benefit of any slow readers, and for those future generations viewing on a ratty copy with image so degraded you can hardly see anything. I like the idea that Jesus is so holy he can’t be seen directly by movie cameras (cf Wyler’s BEN HUR), and am even more impressed by the notion that his speech can only be represented through superimposed text. That’s some messiah! On the other hand, I am slightly surprised at the notion of Christ going around cursing people. That’s not how I imagined him, somehow.

Elsewhere in the movie, Peggy Ashcroft is a young Spanish hottie, and Hugo Riesenfeld contributes a striking score — 30s British movies have their own very different musical sound — which, unfortunately, never seems to shut up for a minute.

F.P.1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by dcairns

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I can imagine conversations between British moviegoers in 1933 probably went something like ~

“Darling, would you like to see the new talking pictograph at the Roxy Regal Odeon tonight?”

“Who’s in it?”

“That German chappie, Conrad Veidt.”

“What’s it about?”

“A floating platform.”

“Oh yes, let’s!”

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For no silver screen devotee could resist the alluring combination of Conrad Veidt and floating platforms. Floating platforms were all the rage — with their large, flat surfaces, and their reliable buoyancy, they struck a deeply reassuring chord with a nation still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

As for Veidt, something about his imposing height made him the perfect accompaniment to tales of floating platforms. As elegantly erect as a platform is sleek and low-lying, as heavily Germanic as a floating thing is light, he complimented the craze for floating platforms (schwimmender-Plattformverrücktheit) like no other actor. It was inevitable that producers would attempt to combine the appeal of the floating platform with that of Veidt.

And so was produced the epic F.P.1 — a.k.a. F.P.1 DOESN’T ANSWER, a.k.a. SECRETS OF F.P.1. (Floating Platform 1, naturally.) Following in the wake of E.A. Dupont’s Titanic flick, ATLANTIC  (“The ship… has one hour… to live!”), made in three seperate  versions with English, French and German casts, and anticipating Maurice Elvey’s transatlantic tunnel yarn THE TUNNEL, a terrifying look at the future of civil engineering which also predicted the horrors of television, SECRETS OF F.P.1 was another oceanic adventure of technological hubris. The sort-of science fictional idea is for an oceanic air-strip positioned in the Atlantic, equidistant between the four continents of Europe, Africa, and the two Americas, allowing planes to land and refuel in mid-journey. It’s an aircraft carrier, but a bit bigger, basically.

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Of course, there’s industrial espionage, at the hands of shady and unidentified business interests. I was reminded of the sinister goings-on in Fritz Lang’s WOMAN ON THE MOON, although this wasn’t quite as exciting. After all, we’re not dealing with space travel here, just a big metal raft. It’s slightly less romantic than an oil rig, if anything. The slightly uninteresting concept of the film stems from the fertile lobes of Curt Siodmak, sci-fi writer and idiot brother of the more celebrated Robert.

Still, we get Francis L. Sullivan (I think the L stands for Large) in a bit part as a construction worker with the least convincing cockney accent on record, making me glad he played his club owner character in NIGHT AND THE CITY, years later, with an improbably upper-crust voice. And we get a musical number! Once the workmen are all aboard and the platform is ready, they all have a sing-song, and the plot, already foundering, comes to a dead stop. Amusingly, all the chorus have thick German accents (but all the workmen who have speaking parts are English) and it’s a little hard to make out what they’re singing. As far as I can tell, the lyrics are ~

“Where ze light-house shines across ze bay,

There’s a cottage shits while you’re astray,

She’ll put off for long ze winter day,

While grazing.

Listening to ze breakers on ze shore,

Comes zat tiny cottage whence we’ll snore,

Stand for ages with a Fred Lenore,

Star gazing.”

Something like that, anyway.

Allan Gray, the composer, was, despite his name, a German, but he made his home in Britain as the war approached and scored several great Powell and Pressburger films, from COLONEL BLIMP to AMOLAD.

In the very Germanic tradition of superhuman, supermasculine hero, Connie Veidt, as a fearless pilot, is dashing and a little stiff — I suspect his director, Karl Hartl, would have got a more relaxed performance from him in the German version, but for some reason that stars Hans (BARON MUNCHAUSEN) Albers. Peter Lorre plays the scruffy reporter in that one, a role that goes to Donald Calthrop in the Brit flick. Calthrop is immortalised in Matthew Sweet’s book Shepperton Babylon in an account of the “Film Studio Horror” in which a young starlet burned to death in Calthrop’s dressing room after a box of face powder spilled onto an electric fire. Meanwhile, in the French version, Charles Boyer takes the lead (now he’s my idea of a glamorous aviator). Haven’t seen those alternate films, but I love the idea of simultaneous multi-lingual versions, and am looking forward to comparing Hitchcock’s MURDER! with its German-language counterpart, MARY, even though the latter is said to be markedly inferior and of little interest. That’s just the way I roll.

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I enjoyed this one for its sheer obscurity, and for the nice rooms designed by Erich Kettelhut, who worked on Fritz Lang’s first and last MABUSE films. FP1 is like Lang Lite, which is fine once in a while if you don’t feel up to the Real Thing.

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