Archive for Star Wars

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

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“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

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4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2013 by dcairns

For this exploration of vanished cinema sites, empty shells and transmogrified theatres, we started by getting the bus to South Clerk Street, where alas the first movie house on our itinerary, The Salisbury, is long demolished, with modern apartments slapped on top. Here’s a still from the excellent Scottish Cinemas site, showing the auditorium as demolition got underway ~

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The Salisbury opened in 1925 with the silent THE SEA HAWK, but was damaged by fires in 1939 and 1943 after which it was used as a store.

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A short distance down Clerk Street is the cinema of my childhood. I knew it as The Odeon, and its auditorium (originally one screen with upper stalls, later partitioned into three) was let by constellations of stars in the ceiling. When those lights finally dimmed after the ads, for the main show, the feeling was magical.

Films seen: the original KING KONG — and the De Laurentiis remake — STAR WARS — Godzilla and James Bond double bills — and the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA restoration. Probably this was where I was taken to see my first movie, DR DOLITTLE on rerelease, and started to cry because nobody had warned me it would be dark.

That’s me, above, standing in line.

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Found this online — the cinema is showing NUNS ON THE RUN, which I *saw* there, I’m embarrassed to say. As a fan of some of Handmade Films’ output, I wanted to give it a chance. A mistake. But one which raises the possibility that I might be IN that photo. The figure bottom right — is that me? I don’t think so — but I did own a grey coat like that…

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Here’s the cinema when it opened, as The New Victoria. It’s showing GLORIFYNG THE SHOWGIRL, a movie which doesn’t exist on the IMDb — I’m thinking it’s GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL (1929), retitled for the UK. But the very first movie screened here was ROOKERY NOOK, an “Aldwych farce” — basically a photographed play, the British film industry’s first response to talking pictures.

The cinema closed in 2003 — among the films showing was TOMB RAIDER, which is appropriate when we come to this gallery of images taken by an urban explorer within the deserted kino-mausoleum.

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Cinema 8

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No, I didn’t take those pictures. I would soil myself with terror in a place like that.

But we have barely begun! Moving down onto Clerk Street, we come to the Festival Theatre, used for live productions but also venue for the opening and closing galas of Edinburgh International Film Festival. Before it was constructed, there was the Empire Palace Theatre, site of Edinburgh’s first ever cinematograph showing. Here’s the programme screened ~

Dinner Hour at The Factory
Children Playing
A Landing Stage
Arrival of The Paris Express
A Practical Joke on The Gardner
Trewey’s Hat
Champs Elysee, Paris
The Fall of The Wall
Bathing in The Mediterranean

The Empire burned down in 1911, in a fire which killed stage magician the Great Lafayette.

Across the road stands a Bingo Hall, originally known as La Scala — a real fleapit in its day. In my day it was The Classic, and it showed naughty films. I was too young to go, but I can remember giggling at the marquee — CONFESSIONS OF A LESBOS HONEY was shown, as was THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. The only defining trait uniting the varied programme seemed to be that everything shown had to be crap. The only movie I ever saw listed there that had been reviewed on TV was Tinto Brass’s THE KEY with sugar daddy Frank Finlay.

So I never got to see inside — which makes this image all the more enticing!

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You can just feel that sticky carpet, can’t you? Just keep telling yourself, “It’s only Kia Ora.”

Nicholson Square, former home of Burke & Hare’s patron, Dr Knox, later housed a picture house, The Lyric, later the The Silver Kinema House, which opened in 1913 (an annus mirabilis when countless theatres threw open their doors for the first time), showing THE RIVAL AIRMEN and THE NIAGARA FALLS. It also ran, at that time, Edison’s kinetophone — talking pictures! A year later it was re-named THE LYRIC, which nobody could pronounce. Ironically, the advent of true talkies killed The Lyric, and it closed in 1931 with MARRIED IN HASTE and THE HELLCAT.

Now all that’s left is a bank, supposedly utilising some of the lobby space, and a vacant lot, utilising the rest.

The Lumiere, attached to the National Museum of Scotland, was a lecture theatre awkwardly adapted to serve as a cinema — the wide centre aisle meant that the exact spot you would sit for the best view was occupied by steps, and the seats were steeply raked as if the show were going to be an anatomy lesson. But the programming was great, during the three and a half years it was open (1998-2002) — I saw PLAYTIME for the first time here.

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This little shed, appended to a church, seems to be The Waverley, Infirmary Street. It was known in its day (pre-WWI) as a “penny scratcher,” a literal fleapit, where kids could buy entry upon presentation of an empty jelly jar. Classy. Sometimes, your ticket came with a free orange, in those distant pre-Kia Ora days. Happy young patrons could suck their orange while scratching themselves, making for a truly immersive and interactive experience. A Charlie Chaplin short viewed under such conditions would be the HOBBIT of its day.

The Cinema House stood for a long time, an incongruous low building next to the imposing Grecian frontage of the Surgeon’s Hall. Opened in 1903, it used to provide a fee cup of tea with every ticket, and was the first Edinburgh cinema to provide “continuous” programmes from 2.30 to 10pm. Hard work for the poor pianist! The Cinema House closed as a cinema in 1930 (with Mildred Harris in SEA FURY, supported by THE LOVE OF THE ATLANTIC), was used by the Salvation Army, then fell into dereliction — finally it was knocked down in 2004.

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The Roxburgh doesn’t look much like a cinema today, but it opened as such in 1919 with THE SILVER KING starring Barbara Castleton. As the cinema did not advertise regularly, Thomas is unable to provide a closure date, but reckons it did not survive the coming of talkies. The triangular top to the facade is the only hint of the Roxburgh’s theatrical origins.

Ignominy! The Tron Cinema (no relation to the Disney movie) is now a bar/restaurant. As a cinema, it opened in 1914 with screenings of A VISION OF THE WORLD and FROM SKY BLUE TO PURPLE DEEP, neither of which merits an IMDb entry. “Take the tram to the Tron!” was the cry. Talkies killed the Tron, it seems.

We nipped along Chamber Street, once home of the Operetta House, now totally demolished. Originally a theatre, then a music hall, it began showing film subjects in the early twentieth century, with titles such as THE DIAMOND THIEVES and HOW THE POOR CLOWN’S PRAYER WAS ANSWERED. This theatre did make it into talkies, but seems to have closed in 1939.

On Forrest Road, the first address I lived at after leaving home, there is a building called Oddfellows Hall, which apparently screened movies at one time — things of a religious nature designed to improve. No more of that.

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The New Palace on the High Street opened in 1929 with HER NEW CHAUFFEUR, a talkie. It wasn’t one of my Dad’s regular haunts, but he does recall being taken there to see SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON when he was ten. You can still see the stone-carved letters declaring “PICTURES”. But the narrowness of the building prevented modernisation, and the introduction of Todd-AO reduced seating from 1050 to 950.

The doors closed in 1959 with CAPTAIN KIDD, SMART BOYS and EAST SIDE KIDS. Thomas quotes Bernard McGowan’s account of the last picture show: “youthful audiences tried singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the usherette cried ‘Stop that racket! You’re barred the lot of you. You’ll no’ get in next week!’”

The Star on St Mary’s Street is a great old building, but totally unrecognizable as a former cinema. It opened in 1914 and closed in the twenties. It was known locally as “The Starry,” but nothing else is recorded about it.

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Still not quite exhausted, we trudged down to the Calton Studios, still open as a music venue. Once this was a base for the Edinburgh Film Festival, after having been a TV studio. It opened in 1977 with THE FRONT, under the management of Bill Landale and Steve Clark-Hall (now a successful film producer) but phased out cinema operations as the Filmhouse took over as Edinburgh’s main art cinema.

The building has great cyborg sculptures sticking out of it, which we admired.

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And that was enough for one day. Nodding in the direction of the Regent, Abbeymount, of which no trace remains, we headed home. Last films screened at The Regent: CARRY ON AGAIN DOCTOR and THE TRAP, with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham.

Niggaz With Altitude

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2012 by dcairns

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RED TAILS… oh dear oh dear. I think fans ought to be glad the STAR WARS franchise is out of George Lucas’s hands — it’s been apparent for some time that practically anybody could make a better, more tonally consistent STAR WARS film than Lucas himself. Is Joel Schumacher available? What’s that you say, he IS?

This was supposedly a dream project of the producer, but he doesn’t seem to have invested anything in it besides money — the dogfights are lovingly rendered (there were reports of some VFX shots looking unsatisfactory on the big screen, but it all looked dazzling on my TV, and slightly easier to follow than the later STAR WARSES) but the human interactions seem to be striving to obtain the long sought-after quality of zero dimensionality.

And at some point late in the game, it seems like everybody gave up caring at all. The opening action sequence is disfigured by having chunky red credits stamped over the middle of the screen, destroying suspense and engagement — I guess the movie doesn’t have a quieter scene the titles could go over, and laying them on black would be too old-school, but do we need opening titles at all? STAR WARS only has the name of the film at the beginning, as I recall.

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What puts the tin lid on it is the subtitles for the German characters, which are apparently intended for the hard of hearing, since we not only get the translation, but the helpful parenthesis “[in German]“. In case we were confused. I look forward to the next edit of STAR WARS where Greedo’s subtitles supply us with useful information about which precise alien tongue he is jabbering in. Actually, no I don’t, because Lucas isn’t likely to be rejigging STAR WARS any more. I *slightly* look forward to Disney one day making the original, authentic cut of the first STAR WARS available again, but we may have to wait a while for that.

Lucas is best out of it, and he’s to be applauded  for giving the money to charity. He leaves behind three interesting, decent movies (THX, GRAFFITI, STAR WARS), those nightmarish prequels, and this interestingly awful thing.

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