Archive for February, 2023

The Cast and the Curious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2023 by dcairns

Or maybe I should’ve saved this title for IF I HAD A MILLION, in which WC Fields and Alison Skipworth trash more vehicles than George Miller could get through in, oh, a lunch break.

Too late, I’m using it for SIX OF A KIND, a Leo McCarey film I’d somehow bypassed. It’s rather adorable, with its middle-aged characters (only Grace Bradley is youthful — her screen partner/fellow baddie Bradley Page is only in his thirties but seems prematurely seedy and dissolute in a very thirties way).

Bank clerk Charlie Ruggles and wife Mary Boland decide to take a road trip to Hollywood for their second honeymoon. They never arrive — Page has smuggled stolen thousands out of the bank in Ruggles’ valise, Boland has advertised for traveling companions to share the bills and Burns & Allen show up, causing chaos; mostly Gracie’s doing — it’s interesting to see her pretzel logic and unflagging joie de vivre matched up to some life or death situations. You really wouldn’t want her around when the going gets serious. When Boland is hanging from the Grand Canyon by suitcase straps, Gracie gets convulsed with laughter because a key strap is fraying. Idiocy is terrifying. Fields and Skipworth turn up as small-town sheriff and hotelier.

Fields does his pool routine, explaining how he came to be called Honest John while elaborately failing to break the balls. Amazing stuff, his physical skill (all that juggling pays off) allied to his sense of absurdity. The punchline, casually thrown away as he wanders off, would have been funnier onstage, where the exit would read as a definitive scene end: on screen, we sort of expect him to pick up the line in the next set. But watch it a second time and the inconclusive feeling makes it even funnier. Fields practically invented the art of naturalistically underselling a joke.

Frank Tashlin seems to have had this at the back of his mind for HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, since the unwelcome car-share couple have a huge dog, though he is not called Mr. Bascombe or whatever it was this time round. Both movies are Paramount, of coutse.

Some comedians benefit from flat staging. Keaton, of course, used beautiful planimetric compositions as part of the gag. Laurel & Hardy, more apparently artless, eschewed showy angles and favoured flat lighting. And so it only takes a slight emphasis to turn W.C. Fields into the beginnings of a horror movie character. (His sequence being cut from TALES OF MANHATTAN may be down to the fact that the film used dramatic lighting, turning Fields from a cut-out cartoon into a fully dimensional gargoyle.)

McCarey didn’t rate this one too highly, and it doesn’t reach the head-spinning heights of THE AWFUL TRUTH, but I’m accustomed to his films either soaring to the heavens or falling flat, so it’s nice to meet one which is just perfectly pleasant.

Page Seventeen Goes Mad in Russia

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2023 by dcairns

Upon a paper attached to the narrative which follows, Doctor Hesselius has written a rather elaborate note, which he accompanies with a reference to his Essay on the strange subject which the Manuscript illuminates.

The reasons behind such strange and sinister invitations to Kaluga were becoming obvious. The intention was to set up a psychiatric examination not for the son but for the father – which is why they were not interested in seeing my wife. It was by now a notorious practice that persons who aroused the displeasure of the authorities without actually breaking the law could suddenly be made to undergo psychiatric examinations. It was usually done on the pretext of a routine check of fitness for military service and the victims were summoned to their local draft office for this purpose. This had recently happened to a friend of mine in Moscow. For a long time he had been feuding with the post office about the disappearance of registered letters he had sent abroad. After he had tried to serve a writ on them through the courts he was summoned by his draft board for a medical examination which turned out to be in fact psychiatric. There was also a certain case in which a person known for his dissident views was taken from the draft board straight to a mental hospital. General Petr Grigorenko and Ivan Yakhimovich, whose writings had been published abroad, are being held in mental hospitals. I also know of attempts to dismiss works by victims of Stalin’s terror about the forced labour camps as ‘psychopathological’. At several meetings to discuss ideological questions, it had been stated that a number of authors, because of the suffering they had experienced, had developed ‘obsessions’ with such themes.

Ivan turned out to be a character of this kind. And when I read Bogomolov’s story these things took hold of my imagination. However, that was as far as I could go with the author. The emotional texture of the story was alien to me. Events were related in a deliberately restrained style, almost in the tone of a report. I could not have transferred such a style to the screen, it would have been against my principles.

We crouched in our slit trench under the pink, fluttering leaves of the olives, and watched the fires come closer, and the night slowly passed. Then at four o’clock we learned that the Headquarters was going to be evacuated after all, and that we were not to be sacrificed. We started up our motor bikes, kept as close as we could to the armoured car that had brought the news, and by God’s mercy avoiding the panic-stricken directed from cover at anything that moved, reached the field with its rabble of shocked and demoralised soldiery — officers separated from their men, and men from their officers.

When the clatter, and then the shouts, came from the courtyard, the loom stopped abruptly, and with it the soft chatter from the women. Moravik came awake with a snort and a stare. My mother was sitting very straight, head lifted, listening. She had dropped her shuttle. I saw her eyes meet Moravik’s.

Some few years earlier Rex’s foolhardiness had landed him in a Soviet prison, and the elderly French exile had put aside his peaceful existence as art connoisseur and dilettante to search for him in Russia. Together they had learned the dangerous secret of ‘The Forbidden Territory’ and travelled many thousand versts pursued by the merciless agents of the OGPU.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness a materialization. That means you will see something appear in space that was not previously there. At first it will appear as a vaporous form, but finally it will be a solid body, which anyone present may feel and handle–and, for example, shake hands with. For this body will be in human shape. It will be a real man or woman–which, I can’t say–but a man or woman without known antecedents. If, however, you demand from me an explanation of this materialized form–where it comes from, whence the atoms and molecules composing its tissues are derived–I am unable to satisfy you. I am about to produce the phenomenon; if anyone can explain it to me afterward, I shall be very grateful. . . . That is all I have to say.”

Seven paragraphs from seven page seventeens from seven books purchased from Edinburgh’s secondhand bookshops. Images sourced from a Google search for “Russian outsider art.”

Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, from The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard; A Question of Madness, by Zhores and Ray Medvedev; Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky; Naples ’44 An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth by Norman Lewis; The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart; The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley; A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay.

The Sunday Intertitle: On Location

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on February 26, 2023 by dcairns

A really lovely title card from A GIRL’S FOLLY. Having set up some romantic entanglements — Robert Warwick, it seems, just ain’t a one-woman guy — the movie decamps to the mountains, where we can expect heroine Doris Kenyon to collide with the movie-making troupe.

I remain unconvinced that the featured cameraman character is being played by Josef Von Sternberg. His role seems slightly too large (Sternberg was never more than an extra in front of the camera, so far as I know) and the actor too small. JVS was five foot four or five, no colossus, but this guy looks to be five foot nothing or under.

Hard to be sure without knowing the heights of his co-stars, but the leading lady of the film within the film TOWERS over him. He could go work for Polanski, who apparently likes short operators because they see the world the same way he does.

Doris at home — she swats a fly. Tourneur cheerfully undercuts the romance of country living just as he’s undercut the romance of movie-making.

Fantastic insert shot of an owl. A studio job — it still can’t convince me that the bright day-for-night sunlight of the location shots is moonglow, and I don’t know that even a blue filter would do the job, but one has to suspend one’s disbelief some of the time. I have a weakness regarding silent movie day for night — especially in NOSFERATU, where nightfall and dawn are such important plot points.

Doris is joined again by her spectral troubadour boyfriend — it’s been so long since she was introduced, a reminder of his (non-) existence is necessary. The transparent actor strums his mandible mandolin using only one thumb, dragging it across the fingerboard in a series of repetitive movements surely more pleasant to look at than to listen to. His other hand does random fingering of the frets. Nothing about this looks authentic to me, so it’s a good job he’s transparent, which works as an alibi for any kind of inauthenticity, I find.

Doris’s flesh-and-blood beau then shows up and rests his chin on her shoulder the way the Red Queen does to Alice. Then there’s an invasion of print damage, a column of bubbling effulgence down the centre of the frame, and a shot of Doris’ slumbering dad with a daddy long legs on his face, being operated by an occasionally visible wire. These things are the very staples of entertainment as far as I’m concerned. If the film keeps up this rate of stimulus I’ll never finish writing about it. (We’re nearly halfway, actually).

A classic bit of business, trotted out here for maybe the first time — Doris interrupts the shooting of a scene when she doesn’t realise that Warwick’s fall from horseback is a stunt. See every innocent abroad’s encounter with an apache dance.

Original or not, this business serves as a meet cute, and soon Doris is planning to run away and join the movie business — TO BE CONTINUED.