Veevers muffs it

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957) shows director Lewis Gilbert coming into his own, has possibly Kenneth More’s most subtle and effective performance, and an entrancing star turn from Diane Cilento. Also, it’s a good adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, and Cecil Parker as Lord Loam brings the entertainment.

But I want to trash-talk Wally Veevers’ special effects.

The film was shot on Bermuda but there are some faked-up shots done back in the studio, for unknown reasons. Either weather/schedule difficulties prevented everything from getting filmed, some shots didn’t come out right, or Gilbert missed something he should have captured.

But first, here’s a rather good effect — a model ship founders on real sea and rocks.

It’s not immediately obvious how Veevers has achieved this. I had to cogitate a bit, which I’m not as good at as I once was. I worked out that the model was filmed against the real sea and rocks, mounted on a device that allows Veevers to move it forward and tilt it. The rocks it hits are actually far behind it, but the camera can’t see that because it photographs flat. Also, the bottom part of the frame would be masked off, removing the underside of the boat, the simple machinery moving it (a track and a hinge, and Veevers’ hands), and all the background below that line.

Then WV would re-expose the film with the top half masked off. This time he’s just photographing the sea, which will now appear to cut off the bottom of the miniature boat, creating an optical-effects version of a waterline. Voila!

Really clever. But this next one’s really stupid. I’m not sure why this shot of the ship, run aground, is slanted in a “Deutsch tilt” — I get why the boat SHOULD be tilted, having hit the rocks. But there seems no reason why the waterline should also be at a jaunty angle. There are no other Deutsch/Dutch angles in the movie. It’s nutty. I think, having positioned the ship at a suitably slanting angle, Veevers discovered that a horizontal ocean (matching the horizontal clouds) would either cut off too much of the ship on the left, or reveal too much on the right, so he had to angle it nonsensically.

The other horrifically bad job is a set of reaction shots of our extended Swiss English Family Robinson Loam looking out to sea. This is one of those shots which for some reason was not filmed on location, so it’s been recreated in the studio using blue-screen. Whenever an effects shot like this was called for in Britain, it seems the rear projection man and the blue-screen man would get into a fight about which technique was best. I tend to side with the rear projection man because I like those old process shots, and matte lines always strike me as ugly. Admittedly, rear-screen projection is a lot more glaring in colour, though.

The trouble is, only one background plate has been used for three angles.

The wide shot doesn’t create an immediate problem because there are cutaways in between it and the closer angles which follow.

But the closer angles share the exact same background, so that when Gilbert cuts between them, it doesn’t look like two angles — it looks like one character has effected a Melies-like teleportation and another has apported in to replace them. It’s strikingly goofy.

Even if there were only one background plate available, Veevers COULD have enlarged and reframed it to make a slightly different bg for each shot. I suspect the compartmentalisation of filmmaking practice, and some poor communication, was involved. Say Veevers is supplied with the blue-screen shots and simply told that they all require a rocky island shore background. He perhaps isn’t told that the shots are going to be directly cut together. Meanwhile the editor (future James Bond style-setter Peter Hunt) has assembled an edit using what he has at present, the shots of characters against blue screen. He doesn’t get to see the finished effects shots until the film is basically complete. then, ouch.

Gilbert is forced to use this lone plate again and again, but at least he never cuts directly between different characters stuck onto it again. Still, that rock assumes a Beckettian inescapability.

I’d love to be able to blame the foul-up on Sony Pictures who have released a pretty shoddy DVD of the film. But I just can’t see them recompositing the effects shots — the ugly matte lines are pure 1957. So I think we have to chalk this one up to the anti-genius of the system, and budgetary limitations which prevented fixing a bizarre-looking screw-up.E

Even weirder — we do briefly glimpse a SECOND PLATE showing a different bit of scenery. But it’s not used anywhere that makes sense or helps anything.

This makes me wonder if maybe the lab screwed up. It’s always the lab, isn’t it?

Still, I’m sure everything will be all right, children, if we all shout just as loud as we can, “I DO believe in Wally Veevers! I DO! I DO!”

4 Responses to “Veevers muffs it”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I remember the movie as not only opening up the play but making it and Crichton himself more conventionally Hollywood. Crichton and Tweeny the maid even have an early romantic scene. In the play, he reticently concedes he has an eye on her and veils his emotions until late in the game. Also, the play’s ending is stronger: Crichton simply becomes Crichton again, resigning because his presence in this particular household makes it impossible to restore the old order — no giddy moment of showing Lord Loam his fortune in pearls, and no departure with Tweeny. The play ends with the heroine alone with Crichton in the parlor. She says, “You hate me, don’t you?” Barrie’s stage direction is “The man who cannot lie is silent”. She exits, and Crichton formally lowers the lights and closes the doors.

    An old Bing Crosby musical, “We’re Not Dressing”, cheerfully rips off “The Admirable Crichton”. Characters talk about the play “The Admirable Crichton” as if that makes it legal. A few reels in they discard Barrie entirely, with the heroine discovering the island is inhabited by a Burns and Allen anthropological expedition and keeping it secret so Bing can continue wooing her.

    Disney’s “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin”, freely based on the children’s book “By the Great Horn Spoon”, is a tall tale version. Perfect butler Griffin (Roddy McDowell) pines for his pretty employer (Suzanne Pleshette) but clings to the rules like Crichton. When fate sends him to the California Gold Rush with her kid brother, he struggles to maintain the proprieties and the master-servant relationship while pursuing villain Karl Malden and a treasure map. The climax is a prizefight with Mike Mazurki, full of old school gag effects. Just okay, but broader and more fun than other live action Disney of that vintage.

  2. Interesting — Barrie questions the class structure MORE than Gilbert, on the cusp of the sixties, could bring himself to do.

    More opening out might have actually helped — it seems strange that a monument to the presumed-dead Lord Loam is erected in the lobby of his house!

    Sally Ann Howes gets to be surprisingly sexy, but Cilento is so sympathetic, a romantic happy ending for Tweeny and Crichton becomes irresistible.

  3. Leave It to Veevers!

  4. Oh, THAT’S a title I gotta steal.

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