Archive for Robert Young

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:

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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.

Things to Come That Went

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2012 by dcairns

MEN MUST FIGHT (1933) is a truly interesting oddity. Along with GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE it forms part of MGM’s pre-code pacifist argument, and like the La Cava madness it’s also riven with internal contradictions.

We begin in WWI with Diana Wynyard indulging in illicit sex with young flyer Robert Y0ung who, being not yet a big star, is promptly slain. Wynyard, in the family way, accepts older gent Lewis Stone’s marriage proposal even though she doesn’t really love him.

But now we flash forward to the far future year of 1940, as distinguished by it’s even more streamlined art deco sets and videophones. The world stands once more on the brink of war — a Second World War! — and Stone and Wynyard are respected campaigners for peace, hoping their/her son, Phillips Holmes, will never have to fight.

But when some ambassador gets assassinated, the nation prepares for conflict — with the Eurasians. “Eurasian” obviously sounded vague enough to avoid offending anybody and costing MGM overseas box office. The only Eurasian we meet is the cook, played by Luis Alberni (whose culinary skills have not yet seen him promoted to hotelier — Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in 1937’s EASY LIVING). So, war is coming, and Stone does what a lot of people do — says, effectively, “I hate war, but this is different.” The family starts falling apart and the question of whether peace can ever be a possibility is much to the fore.

The movie being from MGM, the most conservative of studios, I didn’t expect it to stick to its pacifist guns, if you’ll pardon the unfortunate expression, right through to the end, but I was still surprised by some of the turns the argument takes. Ultimately we’re encouraged to accept the inevitability of wars with a kind of amused shrug, but in the meantime we get a montage of the world’s nations, seemingly representing the varied people who just want peace — and the montage includes a parade of swastika-wielding Nazis. It’s really not certain whether any irony is intended here at all: the image is juxtaposed with a shot of Japan, but it’s of Japanese kids in school, so just what point is being made?

Poor New York gets almost as tough a time in movies as Tokyo — that same year it got hit by KING KONG and DELUGE. Enthusiasts of old-school special effects will dig this bombing, much of which looks extremely convincing — stay tuned for the 1930s Skype call, inaccurate mainly in the sense that they don’t get cut off or go out of synch –

Because I know Glenn Erickson will dig it.

Granny (May Robson) sums things up in a speech which is genuinely surprising, from this studio and era –

“The more I see of this world the more convinced I am that it ought to be run by women. LET the men crow and strut and fight and be ornamental. Like roosters. That’s the function of the male.”

Secret Agent Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by dcairns

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I had strange, dual memories of Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, the third film in what we may call his classic thriller sextet. I remembered it as both good and not good. Watching it again with analysis in mind, I saw it as largely good, with a not-so-good ending. It’s probably the most neglected of the sextet, along with maybe YOUNG AND INNOCENT, which can probably be blamed on John Gielgud’s performance.

To read most modern accounts, Gielgud makes an unsuitable hero, an unsuitable Hitchcock hero, and an unsuitable spy. Most people writing about the film would rather see anyone else in the role. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not an actor, not British, and kind of busy at the time, but still likely to be better than Gielgud. Chubby Checker. He was only five in 1936, but still had more sex appeal than Gielgud. Robinson Crusoe. Fictional, but that could be an advantage: by training the camera on an absent, nonexistent leading man, and tracking and panning with that absence’s “movements”, Hitch could have allowed us to imagine our own ideal Hitchcock hero. We could have imagined Cary Grant. But we can’t do that with John Gielgud standing in the way.

But actually, I like Gielgud. It’s true, he doesn’t do sexy. He’s a bit of a dry stick. It’s hard to imagine Madeleine Carroll having any interaction with him, physically, except maybe to use him as a back-scratcher. We can note that Gielgud came into his own as a film actor when he was off an age to be cast in roles which didn’t involve romance. It’s not because Gielgud was gay — Hitchcock successfully worked with leading men of varying sexuality. It’s because Gielgud was Gielgud.

Nevertheless, I accept Gielgud as Ashenden, Somerset Maugham’s secret agent with a touch of Hamlet. For most of the story he’s standoffish to his leading lady, and nobody stands off like Sir John. In one scene he intercepts a flirtatious phone call, intended for Madeleine, from Robert Young, and the frisson of naughtiness as Young blows him a kiss is delicious. And he convincingly portrays Ashenden’s moral anxiety at the things he’s required to do for national security.

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Young love.

This is the first of Hitchcock’s espionage/terror thrillers to have a professional spy as protagonist (and a period setting in WWI), although it’s important that Ashenden, real name Brody, is a novelist recruited for national security work at the film’s opening, rather than a trained expert. Still, for all his Hamlet dithering, he’s not as reluctant a hero as Hannay in THE 39 STEPS: duty calls, and he promptly answers, without having to be forced by circumstance.

Joining Ashenden is the General, played by Peter Lorre, a bald Mexican who isn’t bald, isn’t Mexican and isn’t a general. We first meet him molesting a maid, played by Rene Ray, future baroness and sci-fi author, and star of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, which Alma co-scripted. I guess this is meant to be amusing, but Ray is such an attractive character in PASSING, I felt rather protective towards her. Lorre, by now in the grip of morphine addiction, was apparently quite a handful on set, but I can’t see his erratic, eccentric performance as anything other than deliberate. The General is fascinating because he’s a comedy relief character who’s also a cold-blooded killer. Absurd, stupid, childish, and deadly. A useful, disposable person to aim at an opponent.

Hitchcock shamelessly exploits the idea of secrecy in counter-espionage to throw in plot twists at every turn. When we first meet Brody he’s dead, and then we learn the death is a fake to allow Gielgud to travel unsuspected under a new identity. Arriving in Switzerland (the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination again) he finds his wife already in the hotel — a wife he doesn’t have as Brody, but apparently does as Ashenden. Mrs Ashenden (Carroll) is in the bath, while entertaining a strange man, Robert Young, in her rooms.

This seems not only indiscreet for somebody pretending to be married, but unprofessional for a spy. But Carroll’s character is quickly established as something of an adventuress, in it for the thrills. Gielgud’s angular, horsey face puckers with distaste. Lorre arrives and is outraged that Gielgud has been supplied with a concubine while he is expected to fend for himself. In one of several funny bits of business allowed Lorre, he furiously rips up a roll of toilet paper (hanging above the bath — an odd bit of art direction). Gielgud complained that Hitch was too fond of dirty jokes — you can imagine his pleasure at showing T.P. in a movie, even if he couldn’t show a toilet.

The first set-piece occurs soon after: informed by coded telegram from spymaster “R” (a precursor of James Bond’s “M” — British secret service bosses really did use single-letter code-names) that the local church organist knows the identity of the man they are after (MacGuffin: unspecified defense secrets), Gielgud and Lorre go to church. The General pauses outside by a big crucifix, apparently about to cross himself, then, seemingly unable to remember the correct movements, he just gives it a little wave and goes in.

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The organist fails to acknowledge the candles Gielgud lights as a signal, instead playing a single, sustained note on his instrument. This should alert the secret agents to what’s happened, but as Comrade K reminds me, nightmare-logic reigns in Hitchcock’s world. Eventually approaching their contact, they find him strangled. Somebody approaches — they hide in the belfry (why do they go all the way up? They’re more hidden on the stairs) and are deafened by the bells, rung to alert the village. Very good sound-work here, with a track in to extreme close-up as Gielgud yells in Lorre’s ear, “We’ll have to stay here for hours.” And that’s it: the police will be called, the body will be taken away, but we have to accept that nobody will think to search the belfry, and Gielgud and Lorre will eventually be able to sneak out — purely because Gielgud has told us so.

Hours later, we rejoin our anti-heroes, with Lorre whining that he’s “still blind in one ear” from all that enforced campanology. Joining Madeleine Carroll in the casino, they are able to identify lovely old Percy Marmont (Joan Barry’s suitor in RICH AND STRANGE) as the organist’s strangler, due to his missing button. Plans are laid to lure him up an alp and do him in.

My favourite bit. Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock, is pretty down on this film, regarding it as the weak sister of the sextet, and he finds the alpine homicide rather strained, but I love it. It could be the most oneiric moment in any of the six thrillers. As Percy is pushed to his death, providing the punchline to the ancient joke, “How do you make a Swiss roll?”, and Gielgud watches from afar by telescope, having ruled himself out of the assassination game (but he’s still just as guilty because he doesn’t act decisively to stop Lorre), back at the hotel, Percy’s pooch somehow knows what’s up, and lets out a keening yodel, a long declining note which coincides with the passage of a great wad of cotton-wool cloud across the miniature alp-scape standing in for a Swiss long-shot, and Percy’s wife somehow knows that the dog’s howl signifies her husband’s death, and Madeleine Carroll knows she knows…

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Afterwards, Gielgud and Carroll are depressed, even more so when they learn (by telegram from “R”, who somehow knows) that they’ve set up THE WRONG MAN. Gielgud actually says, “The wrong man,” which ought to be a gift to documentarists. One of Hitch’s most baroque subjective effects shows the incriminating button, a transparent phantasm of guilt, miraculously expanded to the size of an individual chicken pie, spinning around inside a roulette wheel at the casino.

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Just as Gielgud renounces the spy biz and falls limply into Madeleine’s arms, the game is once more afoot as Lorre’s girlfriend produces a fresh lead — a chocolate factory with a sideline in espionage. The duo (fireball Lorre and tree-limb Gielgud) investigate, leading to a sequence where Hitch errs by making Lorre the POV character, diffusing the subjective power of the film slightly, and then we’re rushing to the climax as Robert Young is unmasked as the enemy agent (well, he IS the only other character) and the plot hurries everybody onto a train bound for Turkey by way of Bulgaria.

Face to face with his opposite number, our undercover Hamlet is once more unable to bring himself to act: killing one man may save thousands in the war, but can it be justified? Unfortunately, Hitch cuts this Gordian knot with a virtual deus ex machina (though he’s set up the bombing raid with a scene of “R” in the Turkish baths, prefiguring similar stuff in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP). As the model train is blow to blazes by English bombs, Hitch edits in rapid, aggressive Russian fashion. Originally the scene was supposed to include tinted red flames (anticipating the single frame of crimson at the close of SPELLBOUND) and images of a torn-sprocketed film strip flapping loose, animated by experimental filmmaker Len Lye, but all this was cut out minutes before the press show, after the projectionist threatened to punch Hitch on the nose.

I love everything about the film, including dear, rigid Sir John, but the climax proves a damp squib. As everyone lolls around in the train wreck, variously injured, it looks like Young and Gielgud might try to kill each other. Then Lorre staggers up, sits down by Young, carelessly laying his gun down. Young grabs the pistol and plugs Lorre, before expiring himself.

It seems weak. Clearly Young has to die, and clearly Hitch was reluctant to make his hero a killer — the lighter British thrillers rarely allow their protagonists to get blood on their hands. The murderous Lorre, though an agent of British interests, must also be sacrificed, like a weapon to be discarded after a fight. But the solution seems lazy, and in fact bloodying Gielgud’s conscience would provide a stronger ending. He needs to get off the damn fence.

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“Made it, ma — top of the world!”

The sappy conclusion seems to spoil the film for many, but we shouldn’t overlook the skill and zestfulness of most of the action, which shows Hitch’s increased confidence after the massive success of THE 39 STEPS. And one thing is established here which will be a constant in Hitchcock’s later espionage films: spying is a dirty, corrupting business. From the cold-blooded realpolitik of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, where Leo G Carroll is happy to accept Cary Grant as a sacrificial lamb, to the grim murders of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ, democracy is protected at a terrible moral cost to those who do the protecting.

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