Archive for PG Wodehouse

Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too –

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.

The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by dcairns

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:

scarab

and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.

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At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.

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An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.

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There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.

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Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.

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I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2013 by dcairns

No sooner had I finished turning one of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary intertitles into an actual graphic, than I stumble upon another story with an intertitle in it, this time PG Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings (a Blandings novel). The relevant bit goes –

If she had appeared, looking as she was looking now, in one of the old silent films, there would have flashed on the screen some such caption as:

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The missing comma that makes the second sentence read very awkwardly, is of course deliberate satire. It’s 1952 and he’s making fun of silent movie title writers. One of the remarkable things about Wodehouse is that his failure, or refusal, to move with the times does not harm his work, or hardly at all. No doubt facilitated by the fact that he never returned to England after WWII, he went on writing a world that never advanced socially from the 1930s, and indeed has much of the early 1900s about it. But because his particular comic universe simply had to be insulated from the darker things in life anyway (other comics thrive on darkness: Wodehouse can only use the tiniest grain of it), this time-capsule effect isn’t a problem at all, except when some glancing reference to modern events creeps in. When Roderick Spode, Wodehouse’s devastating parody of fascist Oswald Mosely, returns in the very last Jeeves & Wooster book, there’s some mental confusion created in the reader about when this is all happening — it can’t be 1974, when the book was published, but when is it? Spode has given up on fascism some time back, it seems, but WWII is not mentioned — it simply couldn’t be (WWII was a painful subject for poor Plum).

Wodehouse engaged with the cinema quite a bit, or tried to, but apart from the excellent A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, co-scripted by him from one of his own books, little of his work has really succeeded on the screen. This is odd, since filmmakers have been trying since 1915. Wodehouse had success on the stage; his dialogue is exquisite, if protracted (Hollywood tried to get him to cut it down, which rather ruins the effect, since circumlocution and repetition are such major tools in his comic armoury); his plots are ingenious; and he had a handy sideline as lyricist, though the movies didn’t exploit that much either, apart from the sublime song Bill appearing in all three versions of SHOWBOAT.

Piccadilly Jim, Wodehouse’s first big bestseller, was first adapted in 1919, and again in 2005. I had a look at the 1936 version. It keeps the characters and throws out the whole story. Well, arguably the story is a bit too convoluted, and has some tricky backstory coming in from a previous novel. Charles Brackett had a hand in the new plot, and dialogue is courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein (of the very mildly Wodehouseian country house comedy CLUNY BROWN) and Lynn Starling (ditto HE MARRIED HIS WIFE). Robert Montgomery and Frank Morgan are well cast.

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So why does it seem so strained and unfunny? Precisely the quality that a Wodehouse piece has got to not have. I think it’s because they’re trying to write funny dialogue for the characters. Witty dialogue. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of Wodehouse, whose characters are rarely witty on purpose. Like the best comic characters, they’re funny in spite of themselves, just by being so openly and helplessly themselves. When the Jim of the novel asks for a job, he doesn’t get laughs intentionally, but by stressing how he really doesn’t mind what he does as long as it isn’t work. Work would be a waste of his talents. But he’s sunnily certain he’ll be a great success in any position which doesn’t require him to exert himself.

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Glancing through Between Flops, James Curtis’s biography of Preston Sturges, I was pleased to find Sturges, in a letter, expressing supreme admiration for Wodehouse. And it occurred to me that THE PALM BEACH STORY is a Wodehouse type of story, filtered through the brasher Sturges sensibility. It’s a comedy about the deserving poor trying to get into the pockets of the frivolous rich, by various impostures and lies.

Then I read Wodehouse’s Uncle Dynamite (Uncle Fred may be mu favourite Wodehouse character: too bad he’s in so few stories), and it seemed to me that the influence worked both ways. The novel, written in 1948, opens with a young man on a train being embarrassed by an impromptu welcoming committee waiting for him at the platform — a situation Sturges introduced in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And the young man is just back from a trip up the Amazon, like Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE.

Did Wodehouse borrow lightly from Sturges on this occasion? It would be nice to think so, and certainly Sturges would have been flattered.

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