Archive for Les Miserables

The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

Millie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Paramount star George Raft visits Lewis Milestone and “General Pappy” on the set of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which GP has a featured role, though not the title part.

What this is, is a kind of biography-critical overview, to be expanded upon in a further piece on Milestone’s war pictures. Where I’ve written about a film more extensively in the past, I link through to it.

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Lewis Milestone was a pretty funny guy. There’s the famous exchange of telegrams when he was filming THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA on location on a real ship in bad weather with a cast including John Gilbert and some other serious drinkers. “HURRY UP THE COST IS STAGGERING” wired the producer. “SO IS THE CAST” replied Milestone.

Earlier, on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, “Millie” replied to a request by studio boss Carl Laemmle (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”) to provide the film with a happy ending by offering to let the Germans win the war.

Late in his career, Milestone adventurously went into television, “to see how it works.” His verdict: “Slavery.”

I’m not actually sure that one is a joke.

He was born Lev Milstein in Russia. While in away in high school, he received money for his father for a Christmas trip home, and instead used it to go to America. He had an aunt in New York. When she was unable to help him, he wrote to his father optimistically asking for more money. The reply: “You are in the land of opportunity–use your own judgement.”

Milestone did odd jobs and enlisted in WWI, where his duties included gathering and photographing severed body parts. He also shared a unit with Frank Tuttle and Josef Von Sternberg.

Entering the movie business, he swept floors for Sennett and Ince and became an assistant editor, editor and assistant director to William Seiter. Seiter preferred playing golf to directing so Milestone had ample opportunity to study his craft.

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The ‘twenties: one important job was cutting WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS in 1923, the first major Rin Tin Tin movie. Huge amounts of location and dog footage was pouring in, from two units who were working from different scenarios. Milestone screened all the material for weeks and eventually cut the film like a documentary, building a story from the footage rather than fitting the shots into a story. The film was tested and went through the roof. All three Warner Bros congratulated Milestone for saving their investment. But when Lee Duncan, the dog trainer, was seen shaking hands with most of the audience as they left, they asked him what was up. “Well, this is my home town, so naturally a lot of these people know me.”

The film was re-tested further afield — and was an even bigger success.

After a row with Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off FINE MANNERS and began work on THE KID BROTHER for his friend Harold Lloyd, but Warner Bros kicked up a stink about his contract violation and he was forced to quit that one after maybe only a few days. Somewhere in there he’s supposed to have contributed to TEMPEST too.

Milestone’s first big hit was TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS, or at least it’s the earliest one anyone remembers. Something of a carbon copy of Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY? it made a star of smush-faced Louis Wolheim and made fine use of rising star William Boyd, before he became Hopalong Cassidy.

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Milestone directed THE RACKET for Howard Hughes but heard, when shooting was complete, that HH was recutting it. Furious, since he had legal right of final cut, Milestone confronted his boss, catching him in flagrante with the cutting copy and dragging him from the building. To calm his director down, Hughes got him into his limo and drove at terrifying speed until Milestone lost the edge of his rage and began instead to fear for his life. Then Hughes announced that the film was being released just as Milestone left it. Out of his own personal curiosity, he had wanted to see what would happen if he reduced each scene by ten per cent, so he had been tinkering just for the sake of it.

(An interesting insight into Hughes, who also took a projector to pieces to see how it worked, thus delaying a screening of rushes. Cutting everything by ten per cent is a very obsessive-compulsive trick to try. It’s also an amazingly uncreative approach to a creative job. Don’t try to make each scene work as well as it should. Don’t try to balance the length of the scenes to create a satisfying structure. Just take ten per cent out of everything. Boneheaded.)

Milestone’s first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS, is a gangster picture with an unconvincing gangster, John Wray, and the director thought it a disaster, trying unsuccessfully to take his name of it. Largely forgotten, it’s pretty interesting — Milestone shoots from a real car on real streets (rear projection hadn’t taken off yet), tracks energetically all over the place, and even puts the camera inside a dumb-waiter and rides it between floors.

RAIN is even more experimental, and THE FRONT PAGE, again made for Hughes, satisfied Milestone that a talkie could combine the qualities of a good stage play with cinematic values. But ALL QUIET is where he’s able to minimize dialogue for much of the picture and exploit purely audio-visual means. A tough, uncompromising film, a troubled shoot, and a colossal critical and commercial success, it became Milestone’s millstone — he grouched to the end of his days about the tendency of the ignorant to think of it as the only film he ever made.

The ‘thirties:  Milestone experiments zanily, restlessly. HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM is a jaw-dropper, and even a rather weak project like ANYTHING GOES has moments of visual energy, wit and imagination. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is a Sternbergian melo with socialistic tendencies and baroque poetry-of-the-streets dialogue by Odets.

It doesn’t make any sense to blame Milestone for his inconsistent career — it’s full of false starts, aborted projects, and movies he walked off of rather than make intolerable compromises. But this sometimes paid off — when Hal Roach fired him from ROAD SHOW, Milestone sued, and as settlement, Roach agreed to finance OF MICE AND MEN, which became Milestone’s most acclaimed film of the decade. Milestone bagged the great reviews, Roach carried the can financially, and audiences stayed away. Justice! But the audience’s loss.

The ‘forties: an erratic period for Milestone, but I like a lot of the films nobody else including their director seems to care for — LUCKY PARTNERS, NO MINOR VICES. ARCH OF TRIUMPH was supposed to be the blockbuster, but the mob found it turgid. Milestone’s wartime output was geared to propaganda, and the skills used to make a pacifist point in ALL QUIET could be turned just as easily, it transpired, to stir the blood and encouraged enlistment. Some of these films are good, some are very problematic indeed, especially if one wants to see Milestone as an auteur. I’ll be talking about some of these films in more detail later.

Attempts to propose a consistent subject or theme for Milestone founder. Some have argued half-heartedly that he is obsessed with groups of men on missions, like Hawks or Ford, but this forces us to ignore most of his output. I have no trouble seeing him as a man interested in many things, and I don’t think that makes him less interesting than those filmmakers who pursued a more narrow range of subjects in their work. Are conversationalists who can only deal with one topic more interesting than those with eclectic tastes?

Milestone’s fluctuating view of war is a bigger issue, because one does want integrity in ones artists. I think the fact that he pursued a left-wing agenda and tried to smuggle in thoughts about group unity and responsibility does give his work the consistency we look for.

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As soon as the war was over, A WALK IN THE SUN took a more considered view of the conflict, and his sole noir, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, partook freely of that post-war malaise everyone is always talking about with regards to this genre. The references to Van Heflin’s military service are brief, but pungent — nobody respects him for serving his country, not even the cops.

The ‘fifties: Milestone’s leftist connections brought him under the eye of HUAC — he was protected somewhat by Zanuck, the studio boss least hospitable to the blacklist, who sent him abroad to work. (Fox exec Raymond Griffith, the former silent comic, played his last acting role in ALL QUIET.) Fox had money tied up in Australia that they wanted to spend, so Milestone shot KANGAROO, the most faux-Australian film imaginable. Before the credits are over we’ve enjoyed the titular marsupial hopping all over the frame, koalas in trees, and then we repair to the office of a policeman, who promptly brushes the monitor lizards off his desktop to make room for his boomerang.

In England, Milestone shot THEY WHO DARE, a run-of-the-mill Technicolor war movie with Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot stiffening their upper lips in Greece, and a rather interesting, unfaithful and truncated film of LES MISERABLES. “It had been done before. I hope it will never be done again.”

I haven’t been able to see Milestone’s Italian film, LA VEDOVA X (THE WIDOW) — if any reader has a copy, let me know.

The ‘sixties: Returning to the states, Milestone made a Korean was drama for Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, which Peck recut and subverted to add patriotism. Milestone walked away, straight into OCEAN’S 11, a big hit but an unhappy experience. I see Milestone in the figure of Akim Tamiroff in that film (an actor who had worked with Milestone several times before) — saggy, grumpy, melancholy, droll, tired, ignored or slighted by his rat pack collaborators. But he did deliver the coolest last shot in cinema history.

Milestone then sensed the chance to get rich with MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The production had rumbled on for a year, Carol Reed had just walked off, and Milestone thought he could polish it off quickly. In fact, almost nothing had been shot, and Milestone was unable to accelerate the production, which was at the mercy of Marlon Brando. Brando didn’t take direction, and had his own set of signals to communicate with the cameraman, cutting the credited director out of the loop. Incidentally, I like the film a good deal.

The ‘seventies: Ill health kept Millie from working further. Somebody stole his two Oscars, which were only retrieved after his death. He spent ten years in a wheelchair.

Milestone on Hollywood: “A fear and psychosis pervades the town, engendered by the recent witch hunts on the national, state and community level. Producers are asking for and getting pictures without ideas. In the frantic effort to offend no one, to alienate no groups, to create no misgivings in Congressional minds, studios are for the most part obediently concentrating on vapidity. The public… did not not ask that pictures be sterilized of ideas; the notion was self-imposed.”

From Wikipedia: “Lewis Milestone’s final request before he died in 1980 was for Universal Studios to restore All Quiet on the Western Front to its original length. That request would eventually be granted nearly two decades later by Universal and other film preservation companies, and this restored version is what is widely seen today on television and home video.”

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Principle sources: Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Milestone. Philip Kemp’s profile in World Film Directors Vol 1. Richard T. Jameson’s piece in Richard Roud’s Cinema A Critical Dictionary (better than David Thomson’s book, fine though that is). And thanks to Phoebe Green!

Phantom Electric Theatres of Portobello

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2013 by dcairns

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Interior, The George, Portobello.

Portobello is a seaside town swallowed up by the swelling body of Edinburgh — just along the coast is Musselburgh, which isn’t technically part of Edinburgh and so won’t be appearing in this series, especially since I never had much of a relationship with that distant municipality. Curious Shadowplayers (is there any other kind?) can investigate it here.

But Portobello is where I lived with my folks from the age of 12 until I was really far too old to be living at home. So I passed its cinema sites a thousand times, though in most cases I had no idea I was doing so.

Fiona and I strolled to Portobello from Leith on a moderately sunny day — that’s quite a walk, so you can see I’m taking my fitness regime seriously (unfortunately I’m still taking my cake-eating seriously) — with Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh in hand, to revisit the places of my dim youth, and uncover their cinematic past.

Next to the Cat & Dog Home, a sprawling, barking concentration camp, is the bus depot, and in this area was apparently a mighty leisure complex, Marine Gardens, which in 1910 boasted a cinema, called variously Hibbert’s Pictures or The Marine Cinema Theatre.

Evening News, Friday, 16 May 1913. “Marine Gardens In the Marine Cinema Theatre. A continuous Programme of Star Films will be shown. These include: The Unwritten Law, 3,000 feet.” Was this the 1907 film with Evelyn Nesbit?

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Strolling along the prom on one of the first summery days of the year, we approached Tower Amusements, from which a mock-medieval Victorian (Georgian, according to Shadowplayer Mary Gordon) folly protrudes. When I filmed up Portobello Tower in 1993, it was seriously run down — we had a health & safety inspector check it out, and he said it would probably be OK so long as we didn’t lean against any walls. Since then the building has been nicely restored. Anyway, the point is that movie shows were held here in 1907 — seasonal shows, so no advertising survives to tell us specifically what screened. But Mr. Harry Marvello apparently presented the “Latest Animated Pictures.”

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Turning off the prom and heading up Bath Street, we find an empty lot which once contained a cinema known variously as The Bungalow Electric Theatre, The Electric Theatre and The Victory. According to Brendon Thomas’s book, the building in 1902 was listed as “a hall with lavatories.” Nobody knows when it became a cinema, but it was apparently a photo studio and a roller rink first. By 1912, the movies held sway, and an ad exists for a 1913 screening of Albert Capellani’s LES MISERABLES.

The cinema closed in 1956 after screening JOHN AND JULIE with Moira Lister and Constance Cummings. It was used as a furniture store for a while, but eventually demolished in 2005. Image below from the Scottish Cinemas website.

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Further up Bath Street is a real beauty, The George, originally The County. It’s now a bingo hall (sic transit…), and not quite as beautiful as it once was — the glass “advertising column” removed from the front added character — in its heyday it lit up with an every-changing light show.

There’s another family connection here — my maternal grandfather worked as an usher at The George.

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Built on the site of a variety hall, this opened in 1939 with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and AIR DEVILS. A perfect deco treat for such premises. Thomas writes, “The present building is the most widely-known work of the firm of T. Bowhill Gibson, architects of so many Edinburgh supercinemas, and in fact The County was the last supercinema to be built in the city. It was also the last word in “mood engineering”. The lighting was all controlled by panels fitted to each projector, the panels all consisting of twelve self-cancelling keys labelled “romance, tragedy, comedy” and so on.”

In 1954 it became the first of the city’s cinemas to fit four-track stereophonic sound.

The George closed after screening SHAFT IN AFRICA and CATLOW. No wonder.

cine3 022Onto Portobello High Street, where the Old Town Hall at one point housed The Star Cinema, AKA The Portobello Cinema Theatre. Thomas notes, “This site is understood to have been where the town’s first resident, George Hamilton [not that one -- DC], built his house, which he named after the naval siege of Puerto Bello, in which he had served. Perhaps the adventure films pleased his ghost.” I like the cut of your whimsy, Mr Thomas!

Now the building is split between a church on one side and a pub on the other, a very Scottish schism.

From the Evening News,  Tuesday, 11 March 1913. “An attractive programme is being submitted at the Portobello Cinema Theatre this week, and it brought together a good attendance last night. A strong drama was Yvonne the Spy, telling the story of high political life. A Lesson in Courtship proved a laughter-maker of the first order. Others were: Carmen of the Isles; Tweedledum, Anarchist and The Leopard and the Burglars.”

The last Portobello cinema is one I passed every day on my way to school, but I don’t know if I ever identified it positively as a cinema, though it was shaped like one then, with a big marquee arcing out in front. It was a night club, going through an endless succession of names and managements. Since I’d generally rather have amputated my own torso than enter a night club, I never went in.

Now there are people living there!

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A 1915 Kinematograph Year Book makes mention of The Picture Theatre at Harbour Green, but both the theatre and Harbour Green have vanished off the maps.

For this piece, I have drawn upon Thomas’s The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, the Scottish Cinemas website, and their reprinting of George Baird’s Places of Entertainment in Edinburgh.

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