Gypsy Malady

Edinburgh Filmhouse and the BFI’s Screening the Archive series is a really nice initiative to project on the big screen neglected British items that don’t always get the attention they deserve — we saw Brian Desmond Hurst’s remarkable proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE a few months ago. Two months back we were sorry to miss a double bill of rare early Boulting brothers thrillers. Last month, GYPSY MELODY, a long-lost musical comedy starring Lupe Velez was the star attraction.

The movie, a 1936 musical travesty, was considered lost for 75 years before being unearthed in the Cinematheque Francaise — the print was then passed on to the BFI for restoration. The film’s French director, Edmond T Greville (BEAT GIRL), a real maestro of the guilty pleasure (he’d just completed a lavish Josephine Baker atrocity, PRINCESS TAM TAM), is not particularly celebrated in his native France, perhaps because he had a tendency to denounce French cinema as a load of rubbish. Shuffling back and forth across the channel, he managed a bilingual career that also included THE HANDS OF ORLAC with Christopher Lee, and NOOSE, a fun 1948 crime pic with a great spiv turn from Nigel Patrick, swarthy villainy from Joseph Calleia, and perky news gal levity from Carole Landis.

NOOSE makes an interesting parallel with GYPSY MELODY — both feature US stars (Landis and Lupe Velez) whose careers were sliding, slumming it in the UK. Both stars made two Brit flicks back-to-back, and later committed suicide. NOOSE is by far the more accomplished film, but that’s not so much due to a fluctuation in Greville’s ability — he frames up some very attractive shots in GM — as to the inherent limitations of the material he’s struggling with here. A plotless Ruritanian romance, the movie nominally stars bandleader Alfred Rode (as Erik Danilo, the surname being a clue to the Lubitschian aspirations). Since Rode (who appears to have had little if any Romany blood) plays a mean fiddle but can’t act to save his life, the bulk of the dialogue is shifted to the annoying comedy relief characters, and poor Lupe’s romantic interest is given nothing to do but express wonder at indoor plumbing and stage a brief spitfire moment when Rode is flocked by female fans.

Despite his inexpressiveness and apparent discomfort in front of the camera, Rode had a substantial film career, but most of it was either in France, where perhaps he was more at home with the language, or in the form of musical guest spots.

It’s interesting to read, in the Filmhouse’s accompanying flier, a Monthly Film bulletin review from the period which refers to comedy support Jerry Verno as “the Jewish hatter” — it wasn’t crystal clear to me why we should interpret the character as being Jewish. A case of anti-semitic assumptions, or character coding that’s unreadable to modern eyes? Or just background knowledge about Mr. Verno?

Thankfully, racial profiling in film reviews is on the decline in Britain today.

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9 Responses to “Gypsy Malady”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    The BFI ‘Screening the Archive’ is truly a masterful idea. Coming up this month…Terence Young’s magical CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS, perhaps the only British film you could double-bill with Jean Cocteau!

  2. Edmond T. Greville is the Edgar G. Ulmer of France.

    And I for one quite like the insane Princess Tam-Tam

  3. Oh, most of the Greville I’ve seen has been good fun, Tam-Tam included. I just don’t quite get the sense of why he thought his stuff was better than the mainstream of French cinema.

    The difference between Greville and Ulmer is that ETG got to work with decent budgets fairly often. But a similarly skewed sensibility emerges. I’ve yet to uncover his equivalent of Detour though.

  4. I purchased CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS on VHS many years ago, and while it suffers a bit in comparison to Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for a number of reasons, it still impressed me. I would relish the opportunity to see this in a theatre setting, and I’m envious for that. Glad you got to see ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE in such circumstances, you well know how much I’m taken with it. Still have yet to watch NOOSE in its entirety, just glimpsed the first few minutes and was surprised at its spark. I’ve read essays on Brit noir that have dismissed it as lesser fare, but I liked what I saw. And BEAT GIRL is the most delicious of guilty pleasures, not least of which for its use of John Barry’s music.

  5. Noose falls apart because the script is sloppy and the villain weakly written, but Nigel Patrick’s spiv has terrific gusto and humor and even if his bad guy isn’t a strong threat, Joseph Calleia plays him stylishly. And Greville is really racing along with terrific energy in the early stages, it’s like he’s just seen Goodfellas!

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Or maybe Scorsese had just seen NOOSE?

  7. Well, he probably has, but he was also trying to convey the effect of cocaine, as well as making a movie with the pace and rhythm of a trailer. Whereas I think Greville may have been taking his pace and rhythm from Nigel Patrick, which results in a similar sense of whizz.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    From what I’ve heard, Scorsese will convey the effects of cocaine whether he tries to or not…MEOW!

  9. Oh, I believe he really is clean now, unlike Oliver Stone. When Stone said he gave it up because it made him stupider, I believed him. Then I saw the films he was making…

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