Archive for January, 2008

“Ah, Jean!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns


That’s what my late friend Lawrie would say whenever the subject of Jean Simmons came up. I mention it because I happened to notice it’s her 79th birthday.

Lawrie’s first movie as assistant was CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, produced by an irascible and untalented Hungarian mogul/confidence man called Gabby Pascal. Pascal had managed to persuade the notoriously intractable George Bernard Shaw to grant him the film rights to his entire oeuvre. Turning up for the meeting in a pair of new yellow socks (“always wear something new to an important meeting”) Gabby convinced George of his genius, which GBS remained convinced off throughout their partnership, despite numberless proofs to the contrary. ‘What is your company called?’ asked Shaw, agreeing to the deal. ‘It can be called whatever you like, once you advance me the money to set it up,’ replied the Mittel-European with a beastly twinkle.

CAESAR was a massive super-production, with all the traditional wastage. ‘We exported sand to Egypt for the desert scenes,’ remembered Lawrie with wonderment, ‘– during wartime!’ A thousand sandals were made for Egyptian extras, who promptly ate them. ‘The soft leather was apparently quite a delicacy.’ Ancient Egyptian-sounding music was produced by the Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments. Huge murals were painted, then ignored by the camera because the director preferred blank walls.

On location, Lawrie sat in a tent and manned a radio, co-ordinating troops for Caesar’s battles. ‘Oh, the battles were a scream! We killed so many people,” he recalled fondly. “Twenty years later I was walking in London with my fiancee, when a grubby old man accosted us. “Remember me?” he said. I didn’t. He raised his hat. One ear was missing. Cut off by a sword in one of those battle scenes. The man said, “I got paid a fortune for that. I do hope we’re going to do another film soon. I’ve still got one ear!”‘

In C&C, Jean Simmons doubled for Vivian Leigh, being thrown into a water tank at Rank Denham Studios — in January. They hurled her in, she couldn’t swim, the man delegated to save her couldn’t swim either, she was eventually hauled out, shivering and bedraggled, to face a delighted Pascal, who was doubling as director. “That was vunderful, perfect, perfect! We do it one more time.”

(Remind me to tell you the one about Pascal and the camel sometime.)

Jean genie

On BLACK NARCISSUS, Lawrie got to know Jean better. ‘I used to help her wash the brown body make-up off in the bath,’ he said, dreamily. Sabu was very interested in her too, but Mrs. Simmons didn’t approve of him, so he went off with Jean’s stand-in instead and got her pregnant.’

(Sabu is a pretty well unique figure in British cinema — my students are usually surprised that we had an Indian star in British films in the 40s. We don’t have one now!)

As Lawrie reminisced, I remember thinking: ‘Jean Simmons. In the bath. Aged seventeen. Wow. I’m in the wrong line of work.’ And then, ‘Waitaminute! I’m in the same line of work.’

“Beware the beat of the cloth-wrapped feet!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns

dancing on the ceiling 

My stairwell is dimly lit by a big skylight, its surface encrusted with aeons of birdshit and whatever garbage the people in the tower block opposite have chucked onto our roof. Seagulls alight on this opaque screen and walk about on it, visible from below only as disembodied sets of webbed feet.

It’s rather like a Disney version of Hitchcock’s THE LODGER.

The Life and Death of Colonel Chimp

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns

Chimp my ride 

I am indebted to Shadowplay informant Danny Carr for the information that former TARZAN compadre Cheeta (A.K.A. Jiggs), the world’s oldest recorded chimpanzee, is going to rock the world of showbiz with a tell-all autobiography. The watchful primate will pull no punches as he recounts his turbulent life story to a rapt reading public. Original “Jane” Maureen O’Sullivan is expected to bear the special brunt of the ape of wrath’s score-settling.

But has Cheeta himself led a blameless existence? According to TARZAN ESCAPES’ uncredited co-director, William “the Onion” Wellman, Cheeta would masturbate on command, at a secret signal from his trainer, whenever studio suits visited the set, thus driving them away. Not the sort of behaviour we expect from a movie star, except maybe Jason Statham.

great movie stills in them days

I’m slightly perplexed at the idea of a non-verbal, non-reading, non-writing primate authoring a book. If we go for that, there’s nothing to stop inanimate objects from getting their own bylines too. We could have The Rosebud Chronicles: A Sled’s Journey (I know Orson Welles said they burned that thing, but Spielberg still thinks he has a genuine CITIZEN KANE prop), Thus Spake Geoff: The Intimate Memoirs of a 2001 Monolith, and maybe Bridge on the River Kwai: His Own Story. Hell, there’s nothing to stop us having books authored by people, animals and objects that don’t even exist. How about the true-life struggles of the purely allegorical elephant that never appears in either version of ELEPHANT?



Another weird bit of Tarzania: in November of last year, a number of obituaries appeared commemorating the passing of Brenda Joyce, the second actress to play Jane opposite the incomparable Johnny Weissmuller (and Jiggs). It is pleasing to note that rumours…death…greatly exagg… and the former Betty Leabo seems to be Very Much Alive at 95. Wonder if she’ll be buying her co-star’s book.