Going Underground

Can any filmmaker have run out of spoons so early and so catastrophically as Anthony Asquith? His silent films are great, even when they have one foot in sound (A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR). I’ve been unable to see THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS, and have heard great things about his 1931 war movie, THE BATTLE OF GALLIPOLI. THE LUCKY NUMBER has definite moments. But sometime after that, his whole approach seems to change, and the expressionist shadowplay is replaced by photographs of actors talking, talking, talking. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is certainly well cast, but I glanced at it recently and was pretty put off by the flat and unimaginative filming. There was Miles Malleson, talking about a book, which he had in front of him, but which was completely framed out. Asquith, I felt, was not only not thinking in pictures, delivering mere literal coverage, he wasn’t even paying attention to the WORDS.

But look!

UNDERGROUND, screened at Hippfest with Neil Brand’s exuberant and eloquent score, is entirely something else. It makes an epic (melo)drama out of pieces of everyday life — admittedly ending in a spectacular running battle between hero Brian Aherne (very appealing) and the brute, Cyril McLaglen. The days when a brute might be played by someone named Cyril. And when the Underground and Battersea Power Station could form dynamic, menacing and even glamorous settings for movie action.

The kind of thing Britain is now absolutely unable to do, it seems — though maybe Edgar Wright’s return to London will provide some visual energy.

More here.

10 Responses to “Going Underground”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    The silly part of me says that a follow-up to Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES “Don’t quibble, Sybil” would be “Oh, do be virile, Cyril!” Sounds like Mr. McLaglen was doing his job.

    The comparison that comes to me, for the difference between early and late Asquith, would be Tay Garnett. That meaning the difference between the Garnett of PRESTIGE and HER MAN and that of, say, WILD HARVEST. Though perhaps A TERRIBLE BEAUTY, unknown to me, has its virtues.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    “A Terrible Beauty” is aptly named, redeemed only by Robert Mitchum’s ad-lib. When seized by trenchcoated stern IRA men (including T.P. McKenna) he remarks, “Begorrah! One would think that the IRA has been invented by a manufacturer of trenchcoats.”

  3. Some later Garnett is watchable, but he does completely lose that wild kinetic quality. Similarly with Asquith, the later films aren’t totally bad, they just lack the spark of life that’s so abundant in his twenties work.

  4. Asquith was probably putting all his genius into those wild sex parties…

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    I assume you mean Britain’s equivalent of “The Roaring 20s” with all those “naughty boys”?

  6. I was thinking of the Christine Keeler era when he was rumoured to be the masked man with the hornet in a jar who would wander around orgies getting people to sting him. But I have no proof of this.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Brian Aherne is a subject for Considerable Further Research. He was a great romantic leading man in the 30’s, shining in such wonderful films as “The Great Garrick” (the Great James Whale’s masterpiece, IMO) and Cukor’s delightfully gender-bending “Sylvia Scarlett”. But then Cary Grant came along and that did it. He continued to work but as an all purpose middle-range player — like in “The Swan” where the leads are Grace Kelley, Louis Jourdan and Alec Guiness and Aherne is left to fight for attention alongside such scene stealers as Van Dyke Parks. So obscure did he become that viewers looking at “Sylvia Scarlett” today may well wonder why he’s the lead and Cary Grant gets under-card billing and doesn’t get the girl/boy, La Hepburn.

  8. By the time of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Aherne was already disregarded, because Olivier looked at him and asked Joan Fontaine “Is that the best you could do?” or words to that effect.

    He seems to have gotten a lot of beard roles: Emperor Meximilian, Captain of Titanic, etc. A waste of his sculptural beauty.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Another “masked man” candidate was Douglas Fairbanks Jr, “David Fairfax” in SCANDAL.

  10. I recall a story also about Doug Jr being blackmailed by an ex-lover, and saying “Publish and be damned.” Can only assume she hadn’t heard the bee story.

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