Archive for March, 2023


Posted in FILM with tags on March 30, 2023 by dcairns

Got together with some of Marvellous Mary Gordon’s friends and family today and celebrated her life and watched her films — most of which I’d never seen. She never talked about them to me. Some good stuff there.

The Puffin Mystery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2023 by dcairns

Inspiring screening of SHOOTING STARS at Bo’ness — Anthony “Puffin” Asquith’s behind-the-screen melodrama looking and sounding gorgeous with Stephen Horne on accompaniment and the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, a big Puffin booster, introducing the thing.

Puffin to me represents an abiding mystery — the experimentation of his silents gives way to a rather leaden, theatrical approach. In perhaps his finest silent, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, heavily Germanic in style, the lead characters go to see a movie, and we get a wicked parody of the new talkies. And yet, once the talkies are established, Asquith largely abandons his formal innovation and his borrowings from German expressionism and French impressionism. There are some very watchable films with some very strong moments — I recently sort-of-praised his solution to the end of PYGMALION — but nothing like the crazy bravado of the first four films.

Still, there’s a very middlebrow sensibility lurking behind the flash-cuts and woozy blurs of SHOOTING STARS’ most delirious moments. In exposing the “reality” of the movie biz, Asquith focuses on a western, a thriller, and a bathing-beauty-bedecked slapstick comedy, of which only the thriller feels anything like a film that could be made in Britain in the late twenties. Asquith offers the genre stuff up for our contempt, but what he gives us instead is pure melodrama, played slow. To protect her career from the scandal of divorce, a movie queen (Annette Benson) tries to murder her husband (Brian Aherne) by planting a real shell in a prop shotgun to produce an Alec Baldwin-type on-set fatality.

It’s somewhat unlikely, and not really elevated above the norms of British film drama except by virtue of that craziness — at least, as a plot, it’s not boring. Asquith tells his story very slowly, lingering over each irony or visual possibility, often with admirable results. But perhaps the seeds of his prosaic future can be found in his not entirely justified sense of superiority over regular movie fayre, and his tendency to linger. The film has two suspense climaxes and about four codas, all of which are brilliant — I wouldn’t cut any of them, personally, and yet, taken together, they’re a bit too much. If some of that bravura had gone into the film’s middle, the drama might have been better served.

I wonder if Tom Ryall’s book, British Film Makers – Anthony Asquith, will illuminate the reasons for AA’s transformation. How did the man himself square his two radically different modes — did he feel his first films were overly fancy, or did he regret the loss of that early brio?

There seems to be something wrong with the BFI’s Blu-ray of SHOOTING STARS — the blacks aren’t black, giving the thing a weird pearlescent look, not horrible but not authentic. So it was great to see a perfect projection.

SHOOTING STARS stars Lydia La Rue; King Arthur; Bob Cratchit; Magersfontein Lugg; Cleopatra; Sir Harry Bumper; Ali Baba; and Boy Delivering Fish.

Roomers versus Ruminant

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

Weird synchronicities pile up when you’re seeing multiple films in a day at a film festival, and the 13th HippFest was no exception: we discovered that Laurel & Hardy in ANGORA LOVE and Brian Aherne & Annette Benson both lived at number thirteen. And variant spellings of “Carabou” kept turning up, as the setting of WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS, the hometown of early woman animator Bessie Mae Kelley, and the name of the goat’s rightful owner in ANGORA LOVE:

One is reduced to muttering along with Ricky Jay in MAGNOLIA, “And I am trying to think this is all only a matter of chance.”

The other queer thing about ANGORA LOVE, a sort of rough sketch for the masterpiece that is LAUGHING GRAVY, only with a goat instead of an adorable puppy, is that I was convinced I’d seen it, but seeing it again evoked no recollection. I think I’d been fooled by the appearance of a goat (the same one, probably) in HABEAS CORPUS: so I’d seen Laurely & Hardy with a goat. I have the box set so I actually OWN a copy of AL, and have seemingly never watched it. I guess the idea of an inferior prototype of a short I loved never tempted me.

I should have watched it, as AL is a delightful little film in its own right. Saddled with an unwanted ruminant, the boys must conceal it from murderous landlord Edgar Kennedy (top). There are a number of pleasures here not ported over into the better-known talkie. Photographed by George Stevens, the film has a number of fast, if wobbly, tracking shots down LA streets, something we see again in LIBERTY, by the same cameraman.

There’s a close-up of a tack that Ollie, of course, is about to step on —

I got excited about this because of something I once read — was it in Karel Reisz & Roger Crittenden’s book on film editing, or was it merely Leslie Halliwell? The theory was put forward that, whereas most comedy depends on surprise, L&H comedy depends on the audience being forewarned of disaster, and thus being able to laugh before anything has actually happened. Of course, L&H use surprise A LOT, but it becomes even more delightful because it’s shuffled in with gags where everything is set up as obviously as possible. So you get surprised by the fact that you’ve been surprised.

Anyway, the example I’d read was about how L&H would treat a banana peal gag: rather than revealing the discarded skin at the moment it gets underfoot, they’d grant it an insert shot long before it comes into play. Well, I’m not sure that ever happens in an L&H film, and anyhow the wide-shot framing favoured by silent comedians means that, in, say, THE HIGH SIGN or SHERLOCK JR, Buster Keaton would reveal the presence of the banana skin well in advance also. But here is a tack. I think in this case the closeup is called for because the thing is too small to see in a wide shot. Nevertheless, it is fairly close to the banana skine xample described.

There’s also a gag apparently too racy for the canine remake:

Quite a modern notion, the serious foreground undercut by comedy business in the background.

The movie also has a rare expressive camera angle. Again, I’m tempted to credit Stevens rather than director Lewis R. Foster. Ollie is demonstrating how to use chest expanders silently (!) when Kennedy walks in. The sequence also benefits from cutaways of Stan, in bed, noticing the menacing landlord first.

The sequence makes a simple over-the-shoulder on Ollie into a big dramatic reveal by having Babe turn, with a dancing movement, into his medium close shot. We get to see his face fall, up close. The pay-off is an even closer view of Edgar’s scowling fizzog.

Penelope the goat may not be as adorable as Laughing Gravy, but there are good gags about it gradually consuming the contents of the room (Stan attempts to reattach a scrape of wallpaper by licking the back of it) and then the same punchline as Rin-Tin-Tin’s WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS — just after Ollie has pronounced his ardent desire to never see a goat again, from Penelope’s hiding place under the communal bed —