Archive for Preston Sturges

Noag or Yoag?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Rewatching THE PALM BEACH STORY with Fiona (before leaving for foreign parts), which my memory told me was Fiona’s favourite Preston Sturges film. She wasn’t sure I was right, but by about halfway through was willing to confirm it. She laughed at the bits she always laughed at, and then found new bits to laugh at. Not precisely new, but bits that kind of slip by the first couple of times and stand out more on a repeat viewing. The nonsense dialogue between Mary Astor and Sig Arno (the Princess Centimillia AKA Maude, and Toto, the refugee houseguest from Belugistan), for instance. Mostly Arno is funny physically, striking poses or failing to strike them, as when he leans nonchalantly on a stick which promptly bends into a rainbow shape and nearly drops him to the floor, before he shifts his weight and is nearly bounced off his feet. But the gobbledygook Belugistan deserves its own glossary. Too bad Anthony Burgess isn’t here to write it. For most of his screen time, Toto resists the Princess’s veiled commands to scram, with a simple, dignified declaration of “Nitzk.” The Princess will respond with a determined “Yitzk, Toto.”

But deep in the third act, determined to marry Captain McGlue (“That name!”), the Princess feels stronger measures are required to deal with Toto and proposes buying him a one-way ticket to Havana. This calls for a refusal in stronger terms, it seems: no mere “Nitzk” will do.

“Noag,” says Toto, firmly.

“Yoag, Toto,” says the Princess, equally firmly.

(Took me a looong time to realise that Arno played the inappropriate comedy relief in DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, a film which seems worlds away from Sturges.)

Bonus bit: having laughed herself silly on several previous occasions at the train porter’s “She’s alone but she don’t know it,” Fiona this time had hysterics at the same character’s musings, in the same scene, about how no man who leaves a dime as a tip can possibly have a yacht (pronounced semi-phonetically) — “A canoe, maybe, or a bicycle.”

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The porter’s on the poster! Somebody noticed how good Charles R. Moore was!

And also! A New York cabbie (Frank Faylen! Bim from THE LOST WEEKEND!), after Claudette Colbert asks if he can possibly take her to Penn Station for free: “Sure, hop in, babe.” It’s the micro-pause before he delivers it, since this is an unusual request and he has to give it a moment’s thought, and then the casual way he says it, since after all it’s no big deal, that for some reason makes it (1) totally convincing in real-world terms and (2) hilarious. The film is full of gleeful silliness, like the repeated Deus Ex Weenie King plot contrivance, but that moment is oddly convincing, despite its highly irregular nature — it also neatly illustrates the film’s underlying theme, what Sturges called “the aristocracy of beauty,” explained by Colbert’s character as the principle that a pretty girl can do a whole lot without doing anything.

Taking the Curse off It

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by dcairns

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“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ‘em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.

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