You can keep your hat on

One more terrific bit from Lindsay Anderson’s Making a Film book about Thorold Dickinson’s SECRET PEOPLE. Amusing in itself, it also shows that British filmmakers were particularly keen to understand and work within the strictures of American censorship, since the USA was such a huge and important market. Perhaps surprisingly, the British took a more adult and forgiving view of sexual matters, but they had to tighten things up if they wanted American distribution. They’re filming a scene in which Valentina Cortese is in the London flat of Serge Reggiani. The purpose is to plot a bombing, but since Cortese’s character is in love with Reggiani’s, sex also raises its head in a simple shot at the window, filmed on location so as to take in a realistic view of a railway station below.

“From the start, we are menaced by censorship,” writes Anderson. “‘As it is written, the scene has the flavour of an illicit sex affair,’ the American censor has commented. ‘The scene should not end with the characters sitting on a couch or in any kind of an embrace that would suggest an approximate sex affair.’ ‘Is it too close to approximate sex if Louis [Reggiani] closes the window?’ Thorold queries. Phyll [script supervisor Phyllis Crocker] has the answer: ‘It’s all right if she keeps her hat on.'”

I think, in fact, the British were keep to suggest the flavour of sex, but without doing anything that could be picked on by the official bluenoses across the pond.

“But for Louis to close the window is more easily suggested than done. The frame is warped, and Serge must heave and strain before it will budge. Then there are the trains: if they are coming out of the station, they pass out of the sunlight, and so are not prominent enough in shot: and if they are speeding into the station, they are putting out none of that photogenic white smoke. Add to this the chance the chancy timing of entrances and dialogue, and you have all the ingredients of a hysterical hour and a half. Thorold cranes from the window, watching for an approaching express. ‘Positions!’ The train comes nearer. ‘Action!’ The artists walk into shot, speak, and the train passes uselessly by in the background-shadow. The second time, Serge finds the window immovable; in what the Breen Office would no doubt imagine to be an ecstasy of erotic impatience, he hoists from the ground in his efforts to move it. ‘Props!’ On the third take, the train mysteriously fails to appear: on the fifth, what we took to be an express turns out merely a single, comically tubby shunter. This is too much for Valentina, who collapses in the middle of the take, helpless with laughter. ‘Darling, I am so sorry … I apologise …’ (These are Valentina’s favourite syllables, spoken with such acuteness of self-reproach that they never fail to enchant.) ‘I know there’s an express arriving at 1.14,’ says Thorold, ‘because I used to travel up by it.’ But in the end we are here until 1.35, leaving off with a score of nine takes, two possibles.”

Serge Regginai’s lack of muscular vigour reminds me of someone or other describing him in the documentary HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO, as resembling a parsnip, with his bit squarish/cylindrical head and his body tapering off into a mere spindle. Still, he emerges from Anderson’s book as immensely appealing, dedicated, intelligent, and nervous.

10 Responses to “You can keep your hat on”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

  2. The Brits have an ancient reputation for being uptight about sex, but comparison to the US always makes them seem like giddy libertines.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Can you imagine Hollywood ever doing something like the CARRY ON series?

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    I was waiting for a response from our great David E. As usual, he can not be “topped” – in the Astaire sense. But going back to old Hollywood could the seeds for a Charles Hawtrey/Kenneth Williams growth be seen in that tailor in PUBLIC ENEMY? He joyously responds, Oh, Sir!” when Cagney asks for a huge pocket for a concealed gun. The public servant has something else in mind.

  7. The Carry Ons are really about sexual repression and not getting any, which I think is why they died out ever so slowly when they did. The Americans subsequently made all those fratboy type sex comedies which were all about getting laid, which is not such a funny subject as frustration.

    Enjoyed the musical selection!

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    SPEAKING OF TAILORS —

  9. bensondonald Says:

    As a matter of fact, decades of American “sex comedies” were built around somebody thinking — mistakenly — that somebody else had sex, and/or somebody attempting — unsuccessfully — to have sex. Also comic wolves like Groucho or Bob Hope responding to pulchritude with one-liners. Farce, frustration, and punchlines, usually with some display of cheesecake and at least one situation that audiences could pretend really would have led to sex.

    On either side of the Atlantic, much of the entertainment was in seeing how much they could or couldn’t get away with. When censorship was loosened, the double entendre comedies were at a loss as to how to handle it. Carry On almost literally fell on its face with a scene involving an incontinent donkey, and exposed breasts turned out to be a bust. Here we had somewhat creepy movies about fathers (now including Hope) obsessed with daughters’ purity, thirtyish virgins intent on marrying promiscuous playboys, and tales of adultery where the male now gets away with something before comic repentance.

    Just saw “Kiss Me Stupid” for the first time. That felt like a weird collision between the old “innocent” sex comedies and newer, more “realistic” fare. In fact, it’s hard to see how it came after “The Apartment”, which embraced and dealt with the dark reality behind all the boss-and-secretary cartoons.

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The best review of “Kiss Me Stupid” was written by Joan Didion

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