Archive for March, 2021


Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , on March 31, 2021 by dcairns

Fiona and I are collaborating on a video essay for THIS.

It’s actually being edited right now, and promises to be a heap o’ fun. It’s got me well into French sf author Maurice Renard, who I was already slightly familiar with, to the extent that I kinda stole something from him for a screenplay (unfilmed). Maybe that’s why we’re having so much computer trouble? There’s definitely some kind of ghost in the machine.

Nero LeRoy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2021 by dcairns

“Is this, then, the end of Nero?” asks a dying Emperor Peter Ustinov at the climax of QUO VADIS?, more or less quoting Edward G. Robinson at the end of LITTLE CAESAR. Which was directed by the same guy, Mervyn Leroy, back when he was young and awake. Since there are varying accounts of Nero’s actual or supposed last words, and none of them include a quote from a Warners gangster picture, this must surely qualify as one of the most prominently placed in-jokes in Hollywood history.

Would that there were any other evidence that the film had a sense of humour about itself. It’s entertaining rubbish, though: the sets are big, and the acting varies from dreadful (Robert Taylor, not a screen god in this household) to the impressive — how Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Abraham Sofaer (the judge/surgeon from AMOLAD), Marina Berti and Rosalie Crutchley are able to make their dreadful lines sound like human speech is quite staggering.

Crutchley, darkly gorgeous, is the only character who’s apparently read the whole script, not just the scene she’s playing: she knows how it’s going to end.

I watched a bit of TORA! TORA! TORA! on TV the same day, and it was interesting to see how the American scenes in that managed to turn comparatively recent US history into the same kind of lifeless tableaux as the typical ancient world epic. I forget if it was in this film that Ustinov blew on his soup to cool it, and was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” he inquired. Of the two films, QV has slightly more authentic human behaviour. By the end, I was dying for some actual life.

So Fiona wondered if Ustinov contributed his own famous last words, since the man did have a sense of humour absent elsewhere in this roaring stodgefest. The scenes at court are weapons-grade camp, with Patricia Laffan (DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS) a resplendent whore-empress Poppaea, and Ustinov clearly taking to heart departing helmer Anthony Mann’s character sketch of the depraved Caesar: “Strikes me as the kind of guy plays with himself nights.”

QUO VADIS stars Quentin Durward; Sister Clodagh; Starbuck; Hercule Poirot; Nyah; Magwitch; Benjamin Disraeli; Queen at Tarsus (uncredited); Vargas the Diablo Giant; Hecuba; Inspector Buchanan, Special Branch; Horatio, His Friend; the screenwriter of THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN; Mrs Dudley; Mrs Alexander; Bambino; and the voice of Morbius.

The Palm Sunday Intertitle, a day late

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2021 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from this year’s just-finished Hippodrome Silent Film Festival presentation of A KISS FROM MARY PICKFORD:

A year ago was to have been Hippfest’s tenth anniversary celebration, which was to have climaxed with a gala screening of The Mark of Zorro (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks, and I was to have written the programme notes for that. Needless to say, stuff happened, and needless to say a screening of The Mark of Zorro to a packed auditorium at the Bo’ness Hippodrome was not among said things. So it feels really nice to be writing about A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1928) in which scenes from that earlier swashbuckler are prominently featured. A small step towards the resumption of normal service, so long as normal service includes putting on a mask and cape and prodding evildoers with a rapier.

Movie stars, cinema, stunts, romance, swashbuckling and celebrity: all are satirical targets in Sergey Komarov’s wild, energetic, inventive and affectionate satire.

Goga Palkin, played by the great theatre/film tragedian/comedian Igor Ilyinsky, is a cinema usher with a problem. Dusya, the girl he fancies is besotted by fame, and won’t date him until he’s a celebrity. Poor Goga – how can he compete with Doug Fairbanks, who is handsome, athletic, world famous, and Zorro?

Anyone familiar with Jerry Lewis or Norman Wisdom’s later characterisations will recognise our hero’s comic type: a childlike idiot with big dreams, who delights us by driving authority figures up the wall with his ineptitude, an eternal underdog who just might triumph over the odds because fortune favours fools, or if it doesn’t, at least we can pretend. If it did, wouldn’t that be good news for all of us?

This hymn to silent cinema is celebrated today for the filmmakers’ triumph of actually getting married megastars Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (America’s sweetheart) to appear in a Russian film. The pair were doing a publicity tour of the USSR and are captured by documentary cameras, but then the good sports actually interact with Goga and play some scenes, a gesture of goodwill towards Russian film and filmgoers.

Comedies, particularly broad comedies – and they don’t come much broader than this – were eternally popular in the USSR – well, you would need some relief from all the idealised depictions of agrarian reform – but the rest of the world hardly ever got to see Soviet slapstick. A shame, since Ilyinsky is a terrific clown, agile, monkeylike, innocent and wide-eyed, with a pugilistic thrust to his buttocks that hints at his indefatigable fighting spirit.

He’s going to need it, too, since the path to stardom is unexpectedly uncomfortable. The committee of lab-coated scientists who test him for his fitness for fame put him through a program of experiments more suited to becoming a cosmonaut than a matinee idol. Life at the movie studio is no easier: when Goga takes an accidental tumble, the enormous movie mogul seizes upon him as “our Harry Piel,” a reference that’s obscure today but spells trouble for our hero. Piel was a German movie star celebrated, like Fairbanks, for doing his own stunts, all of which were dangerous, athletically challenging, and carried out without anything we’d today recognise as a proper concern for health and safety. Goga starts to think he might prefer being a live nobody to a dead Harry Piel.

(If Piel isn’t remembered today, it’s probably on account of his fervent Nazism, as well as the glorious irony that a bunch of his films were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, a loss for film history but a win for poetic justice.)

Director Komarov and his co-writer have prepared various plot wrinkles to trip Goga: fame may come from surprising directions, and then may not be as desirable as the swooning fans imagine. The image of a long queue of patrons buying tickets to peep through a keyhole at a celebrity eating his lunch tells us that the modern mania for observing famous people at play was nothing new in 1927.

As with Chess Fever, Komarov (who cameos in that film) combines the full-figure framing and plain filming techniques suited to slapstick comedy (especially with actors who move as well as Ilyinsky and co-star Anel Sudakevich) with more montage filmmaking of the kind Russian silent cinema is still best-known for: when a whole throng of rabid fans are knocked cold in a stairwell, Komarov serves up a quick flutter of expressive angles, showing lots of prone bodies splayed all down the steps, the kind of cinematic brio Chaplin, Lloyd or Keaton simply wouldn’t have had time for. To the Russians, celebrating the moment with a zigzag set of alternating diagonal compositions was as natural as breathing.

It’s kind of a shame that all the movie-making smarts and comedy skill have been overshadowed by the gimmick of the film’s two celebrity guest megastars, but at least the trick is well integrated into the story, and it’s fun to see the Hollywood movie legends playing themselves. Doug climbs trees and leaps fences with the grace that was his watchword, and shows of his deeply burnished tan, normally whitened by makeup and lights; Mary is unassuming and likable and becomes more so when she’s the first person in the film to show any kindness to Goga, the poor goof.