Archive for Hugh Williams

Full Steam Ahead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2009 by dcairns

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THE LAST JOURNEY is a classic quota quickie — maybe the best ever — directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, about an engine driver on the brink of retirement who cracks up and attempts to crash his own train. It’s a precursor of the ’70s disaster movie, or more accurately, group jeopardy movie (since in this particular version of the genre, actual disaster must be averted) — stick a bunch of amusing stereotypes together in a perilous situation and watch them sweat. Or “perspire,” if they’re first class ticket holders.

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The reliably oily Hugh Williams in a typical cad/dirtbag role.

The story is by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a man who is suddenly all over my mind like a pox. He’s not only the author of Michael Powell’s lighthouse mystery THE PHANTOM LIGHT, which I wrote about already, but of THE GHOST CAMERA, written up for The Forgotten over at The Auteurs’ Notebook. This seems to be a style of title Farjeon favoured: I wonder if he had trunks full of unsold screenplays with titles like The Haunted Tripod, The Zombie Microphone, The Spook Boom or The Spectral Dolly.

He’s also responsible for the play which Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17. is based on, the subject of this Wednesday’s entry in Hitchcock Year, and a little number called TWO CROWDED HOURS, which in the manner of quota quickies, crammed both hours into a 45 minute running time. This was Michael Powell’s first directorial outing, and is apparently a lost film. Do check you’re not sitting on it, please.

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At last, a good hypnotist! Tearle’s suave doctor begins the film with a hokey demonstration of his mesmeric arts, and wishes that he could use the technique to save lives. Will he, before the film is finished? He will!

THE LAST JOURNEY is one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen! Not for cinematic brilliance, although there’s a certain amount of that: Vorhaus does silly things like putting the camera inside the locomotive’s burner, and uses crazy canted angles to film the fraught railway employees trying to prevent a collision. What generates the real energy is the furious pace of the storytelling and cutting, and what makes it fun is the shameless comedy relief and boldly overplayed melodrama ~

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The lunatic engine driver keeps yelling “We’re overdue! We’re overdue! The crash! The crash!” with increasing fervour, like he thinks he’s in a Tod Slaughter movie.

~ while the comic relief characters are highly reminiscent of the one-note caricatures populating the later Hitchcock THE LADY VANISHES, or a Hollywood comedy like TWENTIETH CENTURY.

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“The Frenchman” spends the entire flick trying and failing to go to the lavatory — OK, so it’s not a great character arc — while Goddard is a boozy Yorkshireman, and not the director of A BOUT DE SOUFFLE.

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The stutterer is another one-note running gag, trying to order something in the dining car but being abandoned by waiters before he can ram a syllable from between his palsied lips. Ah, the truly th ’30s were a golden age of mocking the afflicted! Miss Smith is a hypochondriac bore whom Tearle, our hero, disposes of by letting her read his medical textbook, which convinces her she has motor ataxia. He prescribes dry toast, and she leaves for the dining car.

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Most amusing are the wildly dishonest pickpockets, fleeing the law and swiping everything that’s not nailed down as they go. They’re like cockney versions of characters from a pre-code Warners movie.

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The hero type on the left spends the whole movie chasing the train, desperate to rescue the girl he loves from the clutches of the oleaginous Hugh. Sidney Fairbrother is the temperance campaigner, butt of the film’s best and meanest joke. After making a pest of herself campaigning against strong drink throughout the action, she faints at the climax and has to be revived with a bottle of brandy. Waking up, she sees what she’s been drinking, and faints again. So they start pouring more into her, as we ~

FADE TO BLACK.

Famous Film Star

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 7, 2008 by dcairns

I knew it wasn’t my father

Who was bankrupt and poor.

He had a war.

He had a scar.

He was on Famous Film Star

Cigarette Cards

with Janet Gaynor.

It couldn’t be my father

who hit the registrar

and had to be bound over for a year

to keep the peace,

so who were they talking about

in the newspaper?

~ a poem by Hugo Williams, son of British movie star Hugh Williams, quoted in Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet.

I’m apt to be a bit critical of Sweet sometimes: I thought his TV series British Film Forever was disgracefully poor (it’s now verboten to mention it within the BBC, so ashamed were they), and in his seminal work above he does have a bit of a tendency to recycle other writers’ research… But he also personally dug up a lot of fascinating stuff and presents it in an accessible, often amusing form.

Hugo Williams’ poem is a touching insight into the stars and scandals of another day, a day of hair-oil and cigarettes, big bands and slow dances.

Rear Projection

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2008 by dcairns

As actor-writer Mark Gatiss points out in the recently-aired BBC documentary on the British B-movie, Truly Madly Cheaply (written by Matthew Sweet), Jimmy Hanley (screen right) has a rather unusual physique:

What is going on with his arse? And is that acceptable for a leading man?

British cinema seems to always have had a strange tendency to cast physically strange or ill-suited people. Sometimes that’s commendable. I don’t know if a scar-faced man like Basil Radford would have been a comedy star in America, but he was very popular in the U.K., especially paired with Naunton Wayne (see THE LADY VANISHES, DEAD OF NIGHT). And he still got to do dramatic roles as well. His performance in WHISKEY GALORE! is perfectly balanced between the two.

At other times, one simply wonders what anybody was thinking. In what crazy world could John Gielgud be an action hero, as Hitchcock requires him to be in THE SECRET AGENT? Is Hugh McDermott really the kind of man we want to gaze upon in enlarged form, under any circumstances? Has Hugh Williams, capable actor though he is, got what it takes (Hollywood thought enough of him to try him out, so it wasn’t just us)? Character stars like Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim are quite understandable, and have their equivalents everywhere (not exact equivalents, of course — they are UNIQUE) but how to explain Roger Livesey as a leading man? I love him dearly, and I thank the Lord he played the lead in COLONEL BLIMP in place of Olivier, but still, he’s not classically handsome, you’ll admit.

Even in more recent years, British films have provoked shudders by parading the scandalous kissers of Om Puri (a sort of cauliflower carved into humanoid form), Brendan Gleason (an exploding cloud of meat) and Kathy Burke (sodden troll). They’re all brilliant actors and I rejoice in our apparent acceptance of their physiognomic truancy, but what does this say about us as a nation?

I guess we prefer our actors a little unconventional. I’d rather see Samantha Morton (a china plate that looks at you) than some kind of Kate Bosworth hologram anyday. Character is good. Michael Caine is just as welcome looking kind of like a turkey, as he does today, as he was when he looked like an earthbound angel. My plan to have Keira Knightley hollowed out and operated from within by a miniaturized Bronagh Gallagher with a joystick may not be scientifically feasible — yet — but at least we can still enjoy the bloated, mangled or misshapen countenances of some of the best actors in the world.

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