Archive for John Laurie

The Sunday Intertitle: The First Picture Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by dcairns

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In ST KILDA BRITAIN’S LONELIEST ISLE (1923-28) appears as an extra on the excellent BFI disc of Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. I happened to look at it as I was revisiting Powell’s follow-up film, RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1978), in order to write an entry on it for an academic publication, Directory of World Cinema: Scotland. I don’t know if my piece strikes the correct academic tone: I have lines about octogenarian actor John Laurie’s eyes darting about in his skull like mad spies.

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Still, the little travelogue/documentary on ST KILDA, the real island that inspired Powell’s movie, is a treat. I was particularly intrigued by an item at the end suggesting that the film crew projected the islanders’ first movie show — this was apparently in 1923, and is confirmed by news reports at the time which indicated that a shot of a steam train caused the audience to stampede from the hall, Lumiere-fashion. It’s always the same story: you can show them movies, by all means, but don’t show them movies of steam trains. You have to work up to that stuff.

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Scottish children are baffled by the inert projector. I’m baffled too — why is it labelled “The Brunette”?

The Edge Of The World [1938] [DVD]

Praise the Titanic

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2012 by dcairns

Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria and Spike Milligan as McGonagall in Joe McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, filmed in Glorious Brownoscope.

Marvelous Mary had her annual William Topaz McGonagall anniversary dinner, in honour of Scotland’s great contribution to literature, the world’s worst poet.

That dynamo of dourness, John Laurie, reads a McGonagall “classic”.

For the first time I heard the theory that the Great McGonagall might have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, which I guess would explain why he never quite took in the fact that his poetry wasn’t greatly respected, nor any good. An artist like Modigliani could continue in the face of universal indifference driven by the fact he knew his work was great. The only difference with McGonagall is that his unshakeable self-belief was entirely misplaced. He should have had unshakeable self-disbelief. The only difference between William McGonagall and a genius, in other words, is that William McGonagall was not a genius.

Last year I composed a couplet in the McGonagall style (no scansion or rhythm, with a contrived rhyme at the end) to widespread acclaim at the dinner table. It was on the theme of the sinking of the Titanic, since McGonagall loved to versify about great disasters such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge. This year, since it’s the anniversary of the sinking, it was required of me to write the whole poem, despite the fact that nobody, especially me, could remember the original couplet. This is what I scrawled at dinner, based on the McGonagall principles of humorlessness, lachrymose bathos, fractured sing-song beats, and clunking repetitions –

ODE ON THE SINKING OF THE SHIP “TITANIC”

It was in the year of nineteen hundred and twelve

That the Titanic into the ocean did delve.

She sank like a stone, though of steel she was made

And the passengers on deck were extremely dismayed.

When she set sail from Liverpool dock

The crowds at the harbour did clamour and flock

For none did suspect that this unsinkable boat

Could ever do anything other than float.

But midway across the Atlantic came a voice full of dread

From a desperate lookout who cried “Iceberg! Dead ahead!”

The the ship turned to starboard to avoid the collision

The Fates did not smile but just laughed with derision

And the vessel was ruptured, its hull torn

And started to sink, which the captain did mourn.

To the lifeboats the passengers hurried at speed

But could not all fit in, so some ended up deid.

Including one passenger from the fair town of Dundee

Who could not find a seat and was thus lost at sea.

And many other casualties were the people in steerage.

They would not have been there had they been in Burke’s Peerage

And had the White Star Line sufficient lifeboats provided

All those souls would not have perished when the ship and iceberg collided.

A word of advice — if you have the option, skip the 3D conversion job of James Cameron’s “timeless classic” and see the newly restored A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, scripted by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, both at the top of their game.

“I’ll see you your Leo DiCaprio, Mr Cameron, and raise you one David McCallum.”

Bind fast his corky arms

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2012 by dcairns

We’re always looking to share what spambots like to call “great information” here at Shadowplay. Recently, while watching THE BROTHERS (a 1947 British melodrama) with Fiona and Marvelous Mary, I took note of an exciting new way to SLAY YOUR ENEMIES, and I’m passing it on in hopes that it may prove efficacious.

If my instructions aren’t clear, by all means See The Film for a demonstration.

1) Subdue Your Enemy. Any method is allowable, but he ideally should remain conscious or be capable of regaining consciousness with the application of Cold Water (of which much more later).

2) Bind Your Enemy hand and foot, but with Great Quantities of Cork under each arm. Buoyancy is essential to this method of dispatch.

3) Secure via string or twine, a hat to the head of the prospective victim. Secure to the hat or bonnet a large fish. This will henceforth be known as the Fish Hat.

3) Set the unhappy fellow to bobbing in the nearest lake or ocean. You need to be sufficiently close to the sea to allow for Large Sea Birds. Some Large Sea Bird (a goose is fine), espying the glittering Fish Hat, is sure to dive down for a ready meal, and its Mighty Beak will pierce the unhappy fellow’s skull and effect his destruction.

This method has the Great Moral Advantage that you will not be in any way culpable for the demise of your enemy, who will owe his fractured skull solely to the action of the Large Sea Bird. Heaven is satisfied, Nature’s will is done.

THE BROTHERS does feature more of interest than the novel method of murder outlined above — as a rare foray North for the British film industry, it follows in the footsteps of Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. Fortunately, Marvelous Mary is pretty expert on the culture and history of the Scottish islands, so she was able to keep us straight on the film’s numerous inaccuracies.  Patricia Roc plays a young girl sent from the orphanage to work as servant in a croft where there is no woman, only two sons and an elderly father. Firstly, no crofter could  afford a servant (unless maybe she’s to be unpaid, an indentured slave, in which case you’d think the film would make this clear), and secondly, there are no Catholics on Skye, and for some reason the islanders are all characterised as Catholic. Maybe the filmmakers felt that was safer, since religion is a pretty ineffectual force in this film, where it’s not positively destructive, so putting the blame on a minority religion was less likely to offend anybody who mattered. In fact, sects like the Wee Frees (the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland) are as eccentric and intolerant as any branch of Catholicism, so might have served just as well. Certain customs, like taking a newly deceased man’s body on a long haul around the island while the women, forbidden attendance at the funeral, wait at home, are quite accurate to this sect, rather than to Catholicism. Lars Von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES gives as accurate a portrait of the austere and loveless feeling of this faith.

The menfolk in Roc’s new household consist of Duncan Macrae (WHISKY GALORE) and Maxwell Reed (the first Mr Joan Collins, whose Scottish accent is little better than his Danish one in DAYBREAK), with the estimable Finlay Currie as patriarch. Roc’s supposed sex appeal soon leads the family to infighting and injury by heart attack and conger eel. It’s hard to understand, although the filmmakers supply their demure actress with an unlikely low-cut wardrobe and a nude swim (in extreme long-shot, but still quite an eye-opener for 1947!). Roc declined a body double (or else wasn’t offered) and treated herself to a whisky afterwards.

The film also features Scots comic Will Fyffe, who recounts a tale of the selkie (merfolk who transform from seal to human). He’s a delightful presence, but sadly this was his last movie. After undergoing an operation, he was resting up in a hotel in St Andrews, was overcome by dizziness, and fell out the window.

In spite of its quirky moments and interesting milieu, the film doesn’t quite gel as a story, and Roc does her best but has little of the siren about her. Even a more wide-eyed and innocent effect could have worked. David MacDonald directs rather flatly, but does raise his game for a couple of sinister moments, notably this one, featuring John Laurie, the World’s Most Scottish Man ~

Director David MacDonald, an actual Scot from Helensburgh (Deborah Kerr’s birthplace), reached his apogee with this film, before the disastrous THE BAD LORD BYRON wrecked his career, leading to the Shadowplay favourite DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS

Thanks to Guy Budziak.

The Brothers [DVD] [1947]

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