Archive for December, 2016

The Godless

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I sort-of disliked THE GODDESS, even though it’s maybe John Cromwell’s last major film — his last in Hollywood — and scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky.

(Cromwell directed two more movies, a mediocre B-thriller in Hong Kong & the Philippines, THE SCAVENGERS, and a drama in Sweden, A MATTER OF MORALS starring the versatile Patrick O’Neal and shot by the mighty Sven Nykvist — I have been unable to locate a copy.)

THE GODDESS is a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe and how she’s doomed by the loveless emptiness of her existence — made while Monroe was still alive and working.

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Apparently this movie was hacked down considerably in post — some character called George Justin gets a credit as “supervisor.” For all the talent involved, nothing seems in sync. Kim Stanley is the first problem — we have to believe her, in some way, as a teenager when we first see her (Patty Duke gives a beautiful, melancholic performance as the child version of “Emily Ann Faulkner”). She then ages to 31, Stanley’s true age during filming. It’s a cruel observation, but at no point does she suggest the allure of a screen goddess or the freshness of a newcomer.

There are two ways to go wrong with casting a Monroe-like part: you could cast someone gorgeous who can’t act, or cast a strong actor who does not evoke glamour and youth and gorgeousness. Based on THE GODDESS, the second may actually be the more serious mistake, since it throws off all the other actors, removes the motivation for most of the story.

Not to pick on Stanley too long — there’s something more interestingly amiss. Chayefsy was a writer who, justifiably, fought to get his words on the screen as written. Here’s Stanley on her way to the casting couch —

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As photographed by Arthur J. Ornitz, THE GODDESS is full of powerful, expressive wides. A real hallmark of Cromwell’s style, going back to the early thirties. We know exactly what is going to be suggested in these scene — the shot speaks so clearly of patriarchy, power, sleaze. It’s as explicit as fellatio. So the fact that the scene continues into closeups and dialogue is redundant, boring, depressing. Arguably it’s Cromwell’s fault for saying everything the scene needed to say in a single image. But the old cliché about a picture vs. a thousand words applies, doesn’t it?

Some strange line flubs from Stanley late in the show. This is when her character is supposed to be disintegrating, so somebody may have decided they would seem appropriate, excusable. But humans misspeaking sound different from actors, usually — they correct themselves, or fail to, in different ways. Only very rare actors can stumble on a line and make it seem like a natural mistake in casual speech. And Chayefsky’s stuff is so precise, and in a way non-naturalistic (all that monologuing!) it really doesn’t benefit from people tripping over their tongues.

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And oh my God the trailing hand. THAT one hasn’t been seen since Barrymore’s day, and HE was spoofing it in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Fiona has read more on Monroe than I have, and gave the film credit for acknowledging MM’s spiritual side, a real and overlooked aspect of her life. Chayefsky is the poet of emptiness, though, and religion in the end is another crutch, useless if it can’t forge a bond between the goddess and her distant mother (Monroe’s real mother, of course, suffered mental illness). Horrifyingly, Chayefsky diagnoses exactly where Monroe is going — more pictures, because it’s all she knows to do, with the likelihood of drink or pills or both getting her in the end. In an act not even as meaningful as suicide.

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Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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Vista Visions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 29, 2016 by dcairns

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You can read more about Criterion’s ONE-EYED JACKS here.

And Criterion have uploaded a clip from my video essay —

ONE-EYED JACKS – An Excerpt from Video Essay “I Ain’t Hung Yet” from Criterion Collection on Vimeo.

Next up, more pieces for Criterion’s online outlets, The Current and Filmstruck. If you’re a Filmstruck patron you should already be able to access a piece Stephen Horne and I made about the late, great Pierre Etaix. More on him soon!