Actorly Through Air Power

CONQUEST OF THE AIR is one of Alexander Korda’s experiments, an hour-long dramatized documentary history of manned flight. Typically of Korda, it’s “directed” by whoever happened to be around, especially if they were Hungarian (brother Zoltan is one of the troupe of what I’ll call “nauteurs”), leaving it to editor and narrator Charles Frend to tie the whole shambles together. Frend was later a dependable maker of staunch war dramas, staunch police dramas, staunch Antarctic expeditionary dramas…

What caught my eye was the fact that the film is based on a book by John Monk Saunders, aviator and screenwriter (WINGS, THE LAST FLIGHT), and I’m a bit of a Saunders completist. He’s one of the few Hollywood specialists — his best scripts always hinge on aviation, just as Maurine Dallas Watkins’ always trot out women in prison. As long as the key element is in place, the entertainment is assured.

An experiment such as this could only be put over to a British public skeptical of home-grown product by the deployment of star power, so it’s odd that the jaunt through history throws up so few familiar faces. My favourite grouchy Dundonian of the period, Hay Petrie, pops up as Tiberius Cavallo, and I glimpsed an uncredited and dubbed Francis L Sullivan as Nero, witnessing a spectacular failed levitation. Asides from those, it’s left to Laurence Olivier to impersonate Vincent Lunardi in amusingly showy fashion.

Olivier is a beast of quicksilver, sometimes sluggish, sometimes fleet and sparkling. David Mamet cites his performance as a French Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent in 49TH PARALLEL as the one bad performance in an Archers’ film (he needs to pay closer attention to Bob Arden in AMOLAD). Here, he manages to sound convincingly like an Englishman pretending to be French, which I assume was his intention. Quashing a heckler, he declares his intention to “soar over the heads of groundlings like you,” and flashes a cheeky smile. He’s a star, even if Lunardi’s ballooning lacks some of the dash and derring-do of early flight by virtue of its being conducted safely indoors.

The early part of the film is one long succession of deluded hopefuls crashing earthwards from high places (so few of them seem to have considered launching from a runway, rather than a tower/bridge/wall). Frend seems unaware of how comical this all is — the only unfunny entry is the Scottish one, which fails both as aeronautics and comedy, because the guy lived (although he gets points for landing in a dunghill). This sequence seems like a clear influence on Terry Gilliam’s early toon THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT ~

And a later mention of Baron Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus suggests Korda’s influence on British comedy may be greater than previously assumed.

And then there’s this image of Italian peasants fleeing a stray bag of hydrogen, which seems to anticipate Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Aaargh! It’s the Devil!”

By curious coincidence, Marvelous Mary just dropped in for a cup of herbal infusion and told me about the nineteenth century zookeeper, George Wombwell, whose animals seemed to have spent a lot of their time loose and rampaging. “It’s the devil!” was the cry uttered by a poor housewife, fleeing her home, which had become occupied by a stray kangaroo…

18 Responses to “Actorly Through Air Power”

  1. David Mamet is being a little too mean. Olivier’s performance in 49th Parallel is there to supply the “local colour” in the film’s fairly simplistic Canada travelogue schema. And it does suceed in that its memorable.

    Lately I find that too many people are taking shots at Olivier(Daniel Day-Lewis is another) when he’s actually done quite a few good performances. Especially for Wyler in CARRIE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And of course he’s marvelous in Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

  2. Those are my favourites — and I like him in full fling also, it’s just that he does have a tendency to overshoot. But I’ll take that over boring mundanity.

    Loathe as I am to agree with anything from the horrid Mamet, I do find Larry preposterous in 49th Parallel — his character’s fun, but his perf embarrasses a little. What Mamet calls his “grudging” quality is actually very effective in Carrie and Bunny Lake — affecting in the first, endearing in the second.

  3. I always enjoy Terry Gilliam’s many nods to Karel Zeman. :17 to :27 is a nice little pastiche of Zeman’s wonderful BARON PRASIL intro. As far as Olivier goes – There is no other actor who can, in any role that he plays, send me to floor in fits of laughter. I thank him for that.

  4. I’d never heard of this film before, but was sufficently excited by your post to grab my camera and run down the road to this local memorial to Lunardi. The inscription is self-explanatory:

  5. Woohoo! Fulfilling the early promise of the Stirling Castle Attempt!

    At Olivier’s memorial, Alec Guinness said that the actor could seize upon a seemingly insignificant line or word and make it the thing you remembered. Privately, he said the same thing, adding, “It was MEANINGLESS.”

    I went through a phase of tired bafflement at Olivier’s reputation, then decided to abandon that and see what there was to admire. You have to drop the idea of acting as realistic, and embrace stylisation, even caricature, as well as grandstanding, eccentricity and outright ham.

  6. I actually like Larry’s performance in THE 49TH PARALLEL. I won’t dispute that it’s bad, but that having been said it is very entertaining in a comedic sort of way. He makes a very likable trapper, and I hated to see his character suffer the fate that he did. But then his death makes Portman and fellow Nazis look that much more despicable.

  7. I think the role is well worked out, and kind of tongue-in-cheek. And Larry’s playing maybe exaggerates than. But it’s also distractingly peculiar, especially since most actors of Larry’s generation had a cod French accent up their sleeve, ready for all occasions. I guess he decided that a French Canadian demanded something… special.

  8. Dear old Larry! He gives a lovely cameo in The Magic Box, currently getting publicity thanks to Scorsese’s nod to it as inspiration for Hugo. Some kind person has just put it up at YouTube (Magic Box, not Hugo …) for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Try not to be too distracted by playing ‘spot the cameo’:
    The thing with Olivier … great actor or no (and he WAS great in his day), he’s an actor it’s hard to warm to. And I think that troubled him. He and Robert Donat were contemporaries and though Donat wanted the good health to play the muscular stage roles Olivier gloried in, Olivier would have given an awful lot to be half as loved as Donat was. I think I like him best in Rebecca, suitably reigned in by Hitch (who, of course, had wanted Donat for De Winter …).

  9. Reined in and playing a surly, somewhat boorish aristo, not really the kind of role one COULD be lovable in. But The Yellow Ticket and Love Among the Ruins both show a Larry who can be warm and command affection.

  10. Sexy Larry I get … warm lovable Larry … hmm …

  11. My favorite Olivier has to be The Entertainer. He manages to be a sleazy and awful person who somehow earns a slight bit of audience sympathy through his pitiful delusions of greatness.

  12. John Osborne was a pititful awful person with delusions of greatness.

  13. No mention of Olivier the film director?! His filmed Shakespeares combine an oddness and accesability that are head and shoulders above anything else’s, including Welles. And Marilyn Monroe at the coronation of George VI is one of the most breathtaking piecesof iconography I’ve ever caught on television (although his performance in “Prince and the Showgirl” is tripe). Parenthetically, I have recently realised to my huge astonishment (I think it was while watching his Smiley) that there isn’t been a single performance of Guiness’ I actually love outside of Murder by Death!

  14. Osborne’s autobiography certainly reveals an obnoxious personality, about what you’d expect from the creator of Jimmy Porter (a really appalling character).

    Simon: Not even The Ladykillers? Man in the White Suit? The Horse’s Mouth?

    I wasn’t attempting any complete overview of Olivier… somebody should write a slender volume on his films as director: Hamlet is very fine — Polanski admires it enormously. Some wild gimmicks which actually WORK. I was shocked that he began his Richard III with a bunch of pageantry, post-Elizabethan additions to Shakespeare which have been sensibly dropped in all modern productions. Especially crazy since his “Now is the winter” scene is so GOOD.

  15. I need to insert random comment George Wombell pioneer zookeeper was blessed without having to deal with ‘ealf and safety’. His tiger got out and at least once (perhaps more) and killed people. He just gave the families a handsome payment for funeral expenses and went on with his trade.

  16. Oh for those innocent, non-litigious, tiger-filled days!

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