Flying Scots

Leisen shows his hand.

Mitchell Leisen’s Regency romp KITTY and Joseph Losey’s espionage caper MODESTY BLAISE don’t have much in common, or anything in common, really, but I am resolved to make a Fever Dream Double Feature of them.

I guess they do both have women’s names as titles, but the spurious point I’m going to concentrate on is the strange preponderance of Scots in both films. The Scots have been widely ignored in both British and American cinema (although not as badly as the Welsh, it should be admitted), so it’s always surprising to find a film with not only a single token Scot, but a handful of them stinking up the place.

Monica Vitti — not Scottish, alas.

MODESTY BLAISE continues Joseph Losey’s interest in the Celtic peoples, already well established by his use of Stanley Baker, whose Welshness he emphasised in BLIND DATE and EVA. Losey had a real passion for the intricacies of British society, particularly with regard to class, but also with the different tribes of Briton. Gordon Jackson’s little turn in BLIND DATE is an early example of the Scottish influence.

The first Scottish voice heard in MODESTY BLAISE is that of Alexander Knox, in reality a Canadian of Scots descent who had bought a home in the tiny town of Longniddry, just down the coast from Edinburgh. I made a film there once. Despite advantages of ancestry and habitation, Knox’s comedy Scotsman is more imaginative than realistic, bearing a close resemblance to Freddie Jones’s rogue psychiatrist in THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. In other words, it’s a silly voice, and as such, quite amusing. The way to do a comedy Scotsman is to speak in a very high voice, with clipped diction, so each word is a Separate! Little! Squeak! The accent is usually Morningside, a somewhat fictitious form of posh Scots associated with the Edinburgh district of that name, and with Maggie Smith’s performances in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN  BRODIE and the HARRY POTTER films.

But making the Foreign Office chappie a Scot isn’t enough for Losey. He also has New Zealand man-of-many-accents Clive Revill play the arch-villain’s accountant, McWhirter (he also doubles as a comedy Sheik). Revill was a character star for about ten years, landing plum supporting roles and bringing a caricaturist’s observation to bear upon various Italian hoteliers, Russian balletomanes, English psychic investigators, etc. Then he suddenly stopped being somebody audiences had heard of, although he continues to this day, providing many voices for both animated and live action Hollywood films.

The third Scot is a surprise, since Terence Stamp’s character, Willie Garvin, while cockney through and through, sports a Scottish surname, dating back to 1651. Based on all this, MODESTY BLAISE must be Losey’s most Scottish film. Since the movie is to some extent a Bond spoof, maybe this is directed at Sean Connery, in some obscure way?

KITTY (1945) is a terrific period comedy-drama from the great Mitchell Leisen, who threw himself into the design and historical research work, without this time losing sight of the story and performances. Paulette Goddard gives possibly her very best performance, with a mostly convincing and always enjoyable cockney accent borrowed from Ida Lupino’s mum, and displaying physical comedy skills perhaps derived from her years as Mrs Charles Chaplin. Her Kitty starts as a buckle-thief, stealing footwear from gents dismounting from carriages, and rises through society until she’s on nodding terms with royalty, her voice having had the Henry Higgins treatment.

But the accents that concern me are northern ones. First, Mr. McNab, tailor to the film’s leading man, Ray Milland. McNab, as is too often the way with tailors, wants paid. Milland delays the dreadful hour by complaining about the quality of McNab’s workmanship. The jacket and waistcoat must be refitted before he will pay a penny. He will drop in on Mr McNab when he has time. The crisis is deferred and the stingy Scot sent packing. Alec Craig, a real Scot from Dunfermline, Fife, plays the role. By a startling coincidence, I’d just seen him play a man on a park bench in Jean Negulesco’s witty THREE STRANGERS (1946), his final performance (he died before the film came out).

Next, Milland turns his mind to fleecing another Celt, his neighbour, an ironmonger named Selby. By marrying Pygmalion-style reformed guttersnipe Paulette Goddard to the tradesman, Milland is able to secure a dower, plus whatever Paulette can steal from Selby’s strongbox. It all ends badly — for Selby. He’s played by an Englishman (gasp!), Dennis Hoey, who’s best known for playing Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.

Now widowed, Kitty/Paulette continues her rise up the social ladder by marrying the Duke of Malmunster, Reginald Owen. Owen’s a delightful comic player whom I mainly know from THE GOOD FAIRY. “Did you see his eyes,” remarks Frank Morgan in Preston Sturges superb script, “Like angry marbles!” Here he’s less angry but he’s very old, so the news of his son’s birth (in reality, the ironmonger’s) is a bit much for him. This sequence allows Leisen the opportunity for some amazing sustained camera moves, showing off his fantastic sets, gorgeous lighting, but also creating a slightly eerie effect. The character’s ill-health having been established in advance, the longer the sequence goes on, the larger Malmunster’s home is revealed to be, the more certain his eventual demise comes to seem.

It’s at this point that we meet the Scottish nanny. This film is dripping with Scots. This one is Glaswegian bit-part specialist Mary Gordon (no relation to namesake M, habitue of the Comments section here!), another graduate of the Sherlock Holmes series, having played faithful landlady Mrs Hudson. She can also be seen in THE BODY SNATCHER, bringing some much-needed local colour to the film (I might be the best person to write about that film’s Scottishness, its relation to Stevenson’s story and to history — I should do this), and she crops up in BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN too, bringing still more disruption to a film that positively revels in the wanton clash of accent upon accent.

Thus to the memorial service, which is accompanied by bagpipes. I wonder if Leisen is attempting to make up for the sins of ARISE MY LOVE, in which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script relocated the Hebrides to “off the coast of Ireland”.

OK, Mitch, we forgive you.

28 Responses to “Flying Scots”

  1. I’ve always thought Paulette Goddard highly underrated. She’s so prety and sexy and charming in such a seemingly unsressed way people forget just how difficult it is to pull off all that pretty sexy charm. She was without question Chaplin’s best female partner in that she could actually do things as a comic performer rather than just stand there an look lovely.

    The Scottihsness of Modesty Blaise is central to its baroque surrealism. Thanks for the reminder that Willie Garvin is supposed to be a Scotsman too.

    I saw Clive Revill live on stage as Fagin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Quite teriffic.

    Alexander Knox’s accent here is almost as inpenitrible as Monica Vitti’s.

  2. That’s a truly fabulous clip. Looks forward to the “Needle and thread” scene in Lola Montes — though that was comedy and this definitely not.

  3. Goddard rocks. It’s surprising to find Leisen and his team were so down on her. “She was very intelligent, but somehow it didn’t photograph,” says Ray Milland. Despite never finishing high school, Paulette left 20 million to New York University.

    In Modern Times she’s almost too sexy. The Little Fellow seemed to stop being a sexual creature sometime in the early twenties, although his mad turn with the spanners does suggest a return of the repressed. But yes, Goddard brings such vivacity to the part, a relief after the likes of Edna Purviance (ah, movie star names was different in them days!).

    Revill is perfect casting for Bart’s Fagin (rather a different character from Dickens’).

    I assumed the Knox accent would be easier for non-Scots, because it’s quite posh. Working class Scots accents tend to omit the consonants, or as many of them as possible, while shufflinf the vowel sounds and favouring “Uh”. The Morningside accent is quite clipped, and settles for altering vowels, favouring “Eh”.

    Morningside joke: Miss Brodie says she’s going to name capital cities and she wants her class to tell her what country they’re in.

    “Peris,” she says.
    “Frence,” chant the class.
    And they all get up.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    I agree. I haven’t seen this film but I very much like Paulette Goddard. Another great performance of hers is Jean Renoir’s delirious ”Diary of a Chambermaid”(which is actually more surreal than Bunuel’s later adaptation). Burgess Meredith(her then husband) produced that film. It’s in English but like ”This Land is Mine!” the film feels more French and not just the setting.

  5. I have the Renoir and have been meaning to watch it. Strangely, it’s taken me an age to really get into him. But having seen the Bunuel recently on the big screen, it’ll be a pleasure to acquaint myself with the earlier version. Again, her costar was pretty harsh about her performance. In this case Hurd Hatfield thought she was too American, but what the hey? — they’re all meant to be French anyway.

  6. Here’s the IMDB on Paulette:

    “Paulette Goddard was a child model who debuted in “The Ziegfeld Follies” at the age of 13. She gained fame with the show as the girl on the crescent moon, and was married to a wealthy man by the time she was 16. After her divorce she went to Hollywood in 1931, where she appeared in small roles in pictures for a number of studios. A stunning natural beauty, Paulette could mesmerize any man she met, a fact she was well aware of. One of her bigger roles in that period was as a blond “Goldwyn Girl” in the Eddie Cantor film The Kid from Spain (1932). In 1932 she met Charles Chaplin, and they soon became an item around town. He cast her in Modern Times (1936), which was a big hit, but her movie career was not going anywhere because of her relationship with Chaplin. They were secretly married in 1936, but the marriage failed and they were separated by 1940. It was her role as Miriam Aarons in The Women (1939), however, that got her a contract with Paramount. Paulette was one of the many actresses tested for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), but she lost the part to Vivien Leigh and instead appeared with Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939), a good film but hardly in the same league as GWTW. The 1940s were Paulette’s busiest period. She worked with Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940), Cecil B. DeMille in Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Burgess Meredith in The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in So Proudly We Hail! (1943). Her star faded in the late 1940s, however, and she was dropped by Paramount in 1949. After a couple of “B” movies, she left films and went to live in Europe as a wealthy expatriate; she married German novelist Erich Maria Remarque in the late 1950s. She was coaxed back to the screen once more, although it was the small screen, for the television movie The Snoop Sisters (1972) (TV)”

    As you can see, Paulette was quite a gal offscreen as well as on. In many ways her “Miriam Aarons” in The Women was a self-portrait of sorts — as Mr. Cukor well knew. As a result she more than holds her own in a cast of powerhouse ladies working at full throttle.

    I suspect the dissing she got from Milland and Hatfield had more to do with her offscreen antics than anything else. In her later years she had — of all people — Andy Warhol as her walker. He found her utterly enchanting and was fascinated by what she had to say about her past. And she never looked less than smashing when going out for night on the town.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Jean Renoir’s, “My Life and My Films”, his autobiography(memoir is more appropriate since it’s a series of asides and impressions of people he met rather than a comprehensive self-portrait) talks about Paulette Goddard giving Renoir’s wife a night on the town and showing her where to get jewelry and clothes. Renoir liked her and very much and even managed to get away asking her what was Chaplin thinking of dumping leaving a woman as beautiful and charming as her. According to Renoir, Goddard’s response was that Chaplin was funny only on-screen and not off-screen. In any case her divorce with Chaplin was his happiest and she remained on good terms with him afterwards. She also helped Chaplin strengthen his relationship with his kids.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Erratum : I strongly regret using the word “dumping”. It’s too vulgar and not at all accurate. If there’s a way of changing that to “left her” or whatnot. I’d like to change that.

  9. Done!
    Rumours persist that Anatole Litvak performed oral sex on Goddard under a table at Cirro’s. In later years, Goddard would just laugh at this story, not confirming or denying.
    She reunited Chaplin with his sons. Sydney Chaplin recalls that they used to share the bed with Goddard until they were ten or so, then it was thought inappropriate. The boys were dustraught: “Aw, why can’t we sleep with Paulette?”
    That’s just what I want to know.
    What else? Erich Maria Remarque was carrying on with Goddard AND Dietrich. He asked Douglas Sirk which he should marry. “Marlene is a great housekeeper but Paulette is great on the stock exchange.”
    “Marry Paulette,” said Sirk without hesitation.

  10. HA! All FAR From Quiet on the Western Front.

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    A Time to Save and A Time to Settle I guess.

    Have you seen Sirk’s ”A Time To Love and A Time To Die”? Mr. Paulette Goddard acts in a film-adaptation of his own novel and he’s quite good in that role.

  12. He is indeed. Thanks in no small part to the Douglas Sirk Marital Advice Agencyy I’m sure.

  13. I pirated the copy in Kim’s video store in NYC but it came out in b&w. can’t watch a colour Sirk in b&w, so it’s going to have to wait.


  14. Very nice screen-grab of Terry Stamp, who is pointing to his tresses to indicate to an offscreen Monica Vitti that he;s gone back to his original hair color. When we first spot him in the movie he’s a blonde.

  15. I’ve heard that the Terence Stamp Julie Christie explanation for those lyrics is untrue…but I still like the idea that it might not be.

  16. usual in appropriate comment – did you see in Rough Cuts that Kenneth Anger is making an appearance of all places DUNDEE ?!? Do go and report back as I will still be in London.

    And David E I had no idea that you co-wrote Shoot to Kill! Was in Foyles bookshop this evening meadering around the cinema section.

  17. Oh it’s true it’s true!

  18. Heh. The alternative theory is more prosaic: Ray Davies had a relative called Terry, whose girlfriend was called Julie.

    Somehow missed the Kenneth Anger news — of course I must try and check him out again. Wonder if he’ll have the terrific astrological jumper on.

  19. I thought it was from the sitcom Terry and June but he just changed the name. Or is that nonsense?

  20. I hear the new Kenneth Anger films are disappointing.

  21. 1) Yes, that’s nonsense. Terry and june is the basis for Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June.

    2) Oh, too bad. They’re showing a bunch of his Greatest Hits as well as one from 2002. Looks like I might have work commitments that day, but I may be able to send one of my special agents.

  22. oh good do they get a special disguise?

  23. I will be issuing false moustaches and eyepatches as standard.

  24. Christoph Huber Says:

    What new Anger are they showing? Nearby here they finally had the world premiere of his long-awaited Hitler Youth film a few months ago, which was rather disappointing, if mostly visually nice (well). I guess you could say the advance on Leni R. is that it’s much shorter. Afterwards Mr. Anger treated us to a concert on the Theremin, and to put it politely, it showed that he was an “autodidact” on the instrument. Quite embarassing, although also kind of awesome, what with this 80-year old standing out there in some posh crimson suit, and appearing to be in good shape, as he gesticulated wildly.

  25. They’re showing The Man We Want to Hang.

    Anger on the theremin sounds like a GREAT NIGHT OUT to me!

  26. […] films of the late ’30s and 40’s. I think I first noticed him in Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY, a film unusually blessed with Celtic types. On the right is sly ladycorpse Eily Malyon, who played […]

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