The Continental Hop

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2017 by dcairns

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We had Marvelous Mary round for dinner, and we were all set to watch GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, which is one of Fiona’s top ten films but which Mary had never seen. But then the butternut squash took a long time to cook, and I put the Busby Berkeley extracts disc on to pass the time, and by the time dinner was ready we were all Busbied out. His version of b&w is particularly intense — obsidian dance floors that wait like inky pools to swallow the milky flesh of luminous chorines, the whole studio-enclosed universe a fractal yin-yang. (Of course, when Busby got his hands on Technicolor ooh boy!)

So we jumped sideways from Warners to RKO and watched THE GAY DIVORCEE instead.

Of course, the film is structured entirely as a vehicle for Fred & Ginger as they disport themselves before the same rear-projection screen that held King Kong (Night and Day!), but it has a good farce plot — Ginger’s marriage to a geologist is on the rocks; she engages a professional co-respondent to produce grounds for divorce; but Fred has already fallen in love with her and an unlikely coincidence (“Chance is the fool’s name for fate”) causes him to be mistaken for the paid philanderer…

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On top of this, the supporting cast, starting with Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady, and then escalating to Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, bring a huge amount of subsidiary entertainment. The Erics are fascinating. Blore varied his schtick very little over his career, but he didn’t need to. He was perfection. And Rhodes’ performance as Tonetti the professional co-respondent raises the fatuous to the sublime. (Always note at this point that his performance got the film banned in Mussolini’s Italy.)

“I wonder if he’s wearing co-respondent shoes,” said Mary. It turns out that these are brogues in two colours. But we didn’t get a clear shot of his feet. After all, he’s not Fred.

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And then the Continental started, and never seemed to end. I’m sure this number isn’t the actual longest musical interlude in screen history, but it seems to set out to create the impression that it is. Mary and Fiona kept asking me if it was nearly over. “Not until they get to the Russian montage part,” I said.

“Are they going to chuck a baby down those steps?” asked Mary.

The Continental continued. It may be that it is continuing still, that, like Philip K Dick’s Roman Empire, it never ended.

“It was a different age, I suppose,” mused Mary.

“It was by the time they’d finished doing the Continental,” I said.

But somehow the story resumed, and was wrapped up in a clever way, and then Fred and Ginger danced off to a reprise of — the Continental.

“SHE’S wearing co-respondent shoes!” declared Mary. And she was.

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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.)