In the Zone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2017 by dcairns

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Our nightly Twilight Zone viewings prompted me to suggest a screening of SADDLE THE WIND — we’d watched a few Zone episodes with western settings, so a Rod Serling-scripted oater seemed worth a punt. Didn’t go too well — might be a while before I can persuade Fiona to view another cowboy flick.

(My mother LOVES westerns, so I grew up thinking this was normal. Women like westerns. Men like musicals and horror movies. It seemed so reasonable.)

STW is one of those wretched “part-works” (Douglas Sirk: “I have no interest in these part-works.”) Robert Parrish is the credited helmer, but John Sturges also did some of it, I have no idea what. There IS a noticeable tendency for expressive location shots to be interrupted by nasty, obtrusive process-shot “exteriors” and these often come along just when a scene is looking promising. So my guess would be somebody did too interesting a job and the producer wanted it watered down.

It isn’t Serling’s story, so he’s mainly the dialogue man, I guess. It’s noticeable that these cowboys tend to express themselves in florid similes and metaphors, some of which are pretty entertaining. “Keeping your brother under control is like putting hot butter in a wildcat’s ear, it just can’t be done.”

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The story is hopeless. The very strange trio of Robert Taylor, John Cassavetes and Julie London are at the centre. I thought these three would be bound to produce something of interest, but Taylor is such a wet blanket, God love him. He’s also a detestable hero: his little brother, Cassavetes, evolves into a psycho-killer in the course of two days, and Taylor does nothing except bully a poor farmer (Royal Dano) whom his brother later kills. London is brought in as Cassavetes’ girl, and within minutes three different men have referred to her as a “thing” — this turns out to be preparation for her insistence on personhood, which is good to see, but after the first act she’s left with nothing to do. Serling could be considered an artist who found a freedom and creative scope in TV that the movies couldn’t grant —

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Which may be the only grounds for comparing him with Red Skelton.

Red Har-Fest

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2017 by dcairns

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On Shadowplayer GSPegger’s recommendation we ran WHISTLING IN THE DARK, and that led us to watch the sequels, WHISTLING IN DIXIE and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN.

We’re fans of the original WITD, which stars the superb Ernest Truex, a fleeting attempt to make a movie star out of the Kick the Can/HIS GIRL FRIDAY actor, so we weren’t sure how we’d take to Red doing the same material. Also, the casting of Conrad Veidt as villain gave us pause — would this be tragic and mortifying like John Barrymore playing stooge to Kay Kyser? In the end, no — the movie isn’t too heavily indebted to its source, swapping gangsters for a sinister cult, and Veidt gets to retain his dignity by playing it straight, while still suggesting that he might just possibly be having some fun. “We part in radiant harmony.”

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We overcame our animosity to Skelton — OK, he still mugs a lot and projects an over-eager “Like me! Like me!” vibe, but the writing MAKES him likable, and he is given a warm relationship with co-star Ann Rutherford.

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How to characterise these things? Well, they are a lot like Bob Hope’s comedy-thrillers. Films two and three are mainly written by Nat Perrin, of Bilko fame. In fact, many of the wisecracks are only so-so, with Skelton’s devotion sometimes putting over weak-ish material and sometimes trampling it. But the comic situations are good, and Rags Ragland is an effective, if gruesome foil.

All the films have spectacular brawls, which get more and more protracted as the series goes on. Rutherford gamely throws herself into these Donnybrooks — literally. A fight involving both Ragland and guest heavy Mike “the murderizer” Mazurki in BROOKLYN threatens to burst the screen with sheer plug-ugliness. Director S. Sylvan Simon isn’t too subtle with the slapstick, but gets laughter building by piling on energetic knockabout stuff until it reaches the ceiling. Similar to the excess of Preston Sturges or the furious chases at the end of some W.C. Fields flicks. 30s and 40s visual comedy just isn’t as elegant as the silent kind, but works by a kind of aggressive overegging.

Also, Simon is very good at the light-hearted spookshow stuff, aided by very good sets and lighting, so there’s plenty of the requisite old dark house atmosphere. He’s a director I’ll have to look into some more.

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If Veidt emerges with dignity intact in DARK, the same can’t be said for George Bancroft in DIXIE. It’s kind of pitiful — the big hambone, who’s been impossible to work with during his “glory” years, is actually trying to give a performance in this nonsense, complete with southern accent. For his pains, he gets stripped to his long johns in a flooded chamber and repeatedly punched unconscious. All of which is pretty funny, and it’s George Bancroft it’s happening to, so it’s, you know, acceptable.

What beats the wisecracking and even the punch-ups is the terrifying situations Red and Ann keep getting into — the flooding chamber is just one. An elevator threatens to crush them against an iron grid in BROOKLYN, and then they’re bound with chains and threatened with disposal down a dark chute into the sea. Quips are funnier when there’s an edge of hysterical panic to them.

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The bit that got Fiona in hysterics was Red having trouble with a set of joke shop false teeth while trying to pass incognito through a police station while wanted for murder. Best falsers gag since MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. But there are several hilarious and kind of nerve-racking bits in each picture. Later in BROOKLYN, Red has his head compressed in a vice, and his dramatic rendition of the sensation — talking in a deep, slurred voice like a brain-damaged boxer — is funny yet horrific.

Also, an addendum to my observations on HULLABALOO, in which MGM spoofed Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Skelton here is playing a radio sleuth perhaps modeled loosely on Welles’ turn as The Shadow, and at the end of the first film he manages to broadcast to the nation while held prisoner by Veidt’s cult. But the local police don’t believe anything they hear on the radio, having made fools of themselves the previous year…

(Fake news is not new.)

Hammock Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by dcairns

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We had high hopes for PAGAN LOVE SONG, one of the last Esther Williams movies remaining to be watched. But while it certainly conforms to the easy-going vibe we enjoy in her films, this one’s a little TOO relaxed. An hour goes by without anything resembling dramatic tension at all, so that when some actual suspense is attempted over whether Howard Keel’s coconut crop is going to be ruined by rainfall, it was almost unbearable. His poor coconuts!

The film also features a tiny Rita Moreno, and as in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the poor thing doesn’t gets to sing or dance. The casting of Tahitians is hit-or-miss: Esther makes an unlikely half-Tahitian, but there are some genuine native actors whose untutored way with dialogue is a joy.

Plenty of swimming, at least, even if the movie resorts to a crazy dream sequence — Esther swimming in a tropical sky is a psychedelic delight, especially when little bubbles escape her smile, drifting off into the clouds.

SKIRTS AHOY! is actually a much better musical (despite Arthur Freed contributing lyrics, PLS has no memorable songs), with Esther doing her own singing for once, and some cameos by stars like Debbie Reynolds & Bobby Van. While we were unenthused going in due to the military theme, the subject of women in the navy (Waves, they call ’em) proved to be quite an interesting one, even if, being an MGM musical, the film was never going to get particularly in-depth, if you’ll excuse the nautical pun.

Skirts Ahoy! (1952) from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fiona’s very keen on this number, which makes good-natured fun of the whole “wet, she was a star” thing and allows Esther to use her own singing voice, which MGM rarely permitted.

Backstory: when Esther saw what the US navy’s swimsuits looked like, she insisted on redesigning them. Esther played a swimsuit designer in NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, and it seems to be a matter of principle with classic Hollywood pictures that whenever the story involves fashion, the costumes must always be hideous. Some kind of cultural inferiority complex stifling the wardrobe department? The gowns are normally lovely, of course, but the F word is the kiss of death. All the swimwear in ND is ridiculously impractical and dripping with unnecessary and very un-streamlined tassels and fringes. Our favourite was the Highland-themed one, “Scotch Mist.” But anyway, Esther’s actual designs for the Navy in this film are practical and attractive without a trace of fanciness.

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Scotch Mist. That’s not tartan, folks! Last time I looked there was no Clan Irene. Contrast this with the no-nonsense pool costumes below.

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Fanciness is allowed when Esther does her one big pool sequence, cavorting below surface with talented kids Kathy and Russell “Bubba” Tongay as mute subsidiary naiads. While lacking the pomp and potentially lethal spectacle of licensed maniac Busby Berkeley’s aquastravaganzas, this charming little number may be one of Esther’s best.

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Most of the Kansan sea-goddess’ films were written by women, and most of them are at least reasonably progressive, as well as uniformly good-humoured. In these troublous times, they constitute the perfect escape from reality.