Archive for April, 2013

Q is for Que Dios me Perdone!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, returns to these pages with letter Q in his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama. Now read on…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

Q is for ¡Que Dios me perdone! (May God Forgive Me!)

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A film even more operatic than its title, the 1948 ¡Que dios me perdone! stars diva María Félix as a Woman With A Dark Past. We know that immediately from her hat. A rich but none-too-canny business tycoon (Fernando Soler) spots her in a seedy but glamorous Mexico City dive. Her exquisite face is masked entirely by a black hat – one that’s roughly as large as the front wheel on a unicycle. This is classic movie shorthand for a lady with something to hide.

Seconds later, María turns her head and looks up. She fixes her admirer with those melting yet ruthless black-opal eyes. Her name, she reveals, is Lena Kovacs – a refugee from war-torn Europe. Her voice, of course, still sounds as Mexican as ever. Helpfully, she explains that she comes from a long-lost community of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews. Now she is adrift in Mexico, eking out a living as a nightclub singer. The old gent is, to put it politely, toast.

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The director, Tito Davison, is clearly pleased with the staging in this early scene. He repeats it, with varying costumes and props, to signal each and every one of his plot’s never-ending twists and turns. Once María has captured the old man’s heart – with her spirited yet tuneless rendering of the film’s title song – she steals back to her dark flat in one of the city’s ritzier slums. Waiting on a side table, illuminated strategically by a moonbeam, is an ineffably sinister black leather glove.

The hand inside that glove belongs to an evil Nazi spymaster. He orders María to seduce and marry Soler. That way she, as his wife, can steal his company’s top secret invention. Some vital yet unnamed device that may help the Third Reich win the war. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) or Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad (1952) and then absolve them of any responsibility to act or dance. That, in essence, is María’s role in this movie. Or so it seems at first…

She pulls off the first half of her mission swiftly enough. Married to Soler, she acquires an even more fabulous and extravagant wardrobe than the one she enjoyed as a penniless refugee. Yet now she must contend with two other men in her husband’s life. His future son-in-law (Tito Junco) is an oily playboy who boasts of how proud he is to be a war profiteer. His best friend (Juliàn Soler) is a doctor who practices the newfangled art of psychotherapy. Both are promptly smitten with the new bride. They watch her every move obsessively – leaving her scarcely any time in which to spy!

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Just as we’ve decided that even María Félix now has enough problems for one movie, she gets a surprise telephone call from an old friend. A mysterious voice insists that María meet her in a café. All we see – as we cut to the next shot – is a column of cigarette smoke, rising ominously over the back of a chair. Seated in that chair is a sinister and rather mannish older lady (an early model for Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love) who seems to know María, well, intimately. It seems that our gal, in her efforts to survive the war, once practised a profession even less reputable than spying.

A shock revelation (or not) but one that’s soon buried under an avalanche of greater traumas. The old pal brings news of María’s long-lost daughter, whom she left in a concentration camp in Europe. It seems the girl is still alive…and this warm-hearted lady can secure her release, for the modest fee of $50,000. Welcome news, as it allows the star to switch roles in mid-movie! Where she was once a scheming and duplicitous femme fatale, she is now a suffering and sacrificial heroine. Not that this makes any great change to María’s actual performance.

Were this not a Mexican film, you might expect María to go home and explain her new dilemma to her husband. He can’t have thought she was a virgin before they married – and the poor fool is clearly a slave to her every whim. But that, of course, would end the movie long before her fans had got their money’s worth…so instead she hatches a complicated plot to secretly sell a priceless diamond bracelet that Soler gave her as a wedding gift.

This plan (unsurprisingly) goes awry, but not before the lecherous Junco finds out and blackmails her into an affair – as the price of his silence. Their erotic encounter is one of those oddly sadomasochistic moments that were the Félix stock-in-trade. When Junco demands sex from her, she slaps him twice across the face, then spreads her arms in a lurid mock-Crucifixion pose. “Now claim your price!” Just try and imagine Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn attempting to act this scene, and you may appreciate María’s own particular brand of genius.

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A few scenes later, Junco has embroiled María in a plot to murder her husband and live together off their ill-gotten gains. (Secret weapons? Missing child? All that was ages ago. Do please try and keep up.) There will, of course, be several more twists before ¡Que Dios me perdone! grinds its way to a tragic and tortuous climax…

Nor is this even the most ludicrous film made by Davison, a Chilean who directed most of Latin America’s great stars. That honour goes to The Big Cube (1969), in which wealthy gringa Lana Turner meets a murderous toyboy (George Chakiris) who doses her up on LSD. But if ¡Que Dios me perdone! were a shade less hysterical, it might well pass as one of Lana’s drug-induced flashbacks.

David Melville

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Candlelight

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on April 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Fiona always had a problem with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE — she loves Kim and Jimmy and Jack and Elsa and everybody else — she certainly loves Pyewacket — loves the artificial/real New York construct and the Christmastime setting — loves James Wong Howe’s lustrous lighting and the daring use of colour (including that green glow that follows Kim into VERTIGO)… she just had a problem with the whole “giving up witchcraft” thing.

This time round, persuaded by the film’s persistence that being human is somehow preferable, Fiona went with it, more or less. Giving up superhuman powers in exchange for being able to weep, blush and drown still doesn’t seem a very good deal, but on closer examination the movie may not be about female disempowerment at all. Flowing as it does from the enchanted pen of John Van Druten, it may be more about being a social outsider and finally finding a place in the mainstream — in fact, it may well be about being gay during a particularly oppressive period, and yearning for a situation where one can love openly.

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It seems to me that Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is coded gay, and that Lemmon is playing him that way, though Fiona isn’t convinced — hard to tell with Lemmon, who’s always light, never macho, but never particularly sexual one way or the other. It’s just not a significant part of his instrument. He carries no whiff of ambiguity normally, but here I think he’s aiming for a more pixie-like persona than usual. But maybe that’s because he’s playing a warlock.

Of course, whatever the film’s hidden or overt meanings, it’s also the climax of Richard Quine’s career as a visual stylist. There are a lot of beautiful things in his other films, but the concentration of style and glamour here reaches something like critical mass.

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The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by dcairns

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:

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and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.

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At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.

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An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.

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There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.

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Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.

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I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.