Archive for March 12, 2023

The Sunday Intertitle: Busk Till Dawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2023 by dcairns

ST MARTIN’S LANE (1938) is a Charles Laughton-Erich Pommer production (like JAMAICA INN and THE BEACHCOMBER) designed to give Laughton all the big acting opportunities, though it allows Vivian Leigh and Rex Harrison to display their charms also. Well, kind of: shorn of light comedy opportunities, Sexy Rexy seems vulpine or even vulturish, though his role in transforming a cockney guttersnipe into a lady anticipates later developments. Leigh dances as much as she acts: Hollywood missed a trick by not putting her in musicals.

Cinematographer Jules Kruger (NAPOLEON, WOODEN CROSSES, PEPE LE MOKO) and designer Thomas N. Morahan (THE PARADINE CASE, WENT THE DAY WELL?) create an umbrous London detailed enough to intercut with the real thing: the narrower streets of Soho, which appear skyless to normal camera angles, are particularly suited to studio recreation.

Two editors: Robert Hamer and Hugh Stewart. I’d forgotten Hamer cut his teeth cutting film before KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS etc. A montage charting Leigh’s rise to celebrity via theatrical programmes, all freezeframes and jumpcuts, is well outside the Overton window of 1930s cutting conventions:

Of course, in the montage department, different rules apply, or else Vorkapich couldn’t Vorkapich, but this is still pretty wacky. I wonder how much Hamer was drinking at this stage of his career.

The whole story feels like a chance for Laughton, the poet laureate of screen humiliation, to abase himself spectacularly, which was both his specialty and the mainspring of his creativity. The film is sometimes called a comedy-drama but the humour seems mostly to function as an extra spice added to his romantic suffering. The character, Charlie Staggers, seems something of a self-portrait.

Cat POV!

With the heavyweight talent on display it seems odd that the director should be Tim Whelan, or anyone called Tim. I suspect Laughton was looking for tractability rather than genius on this occasion — he was coming off I. CLAUDIUS, in which he and another genius, Von Sternberg, had failed to mesh. Whelan may be nominally underpowered but he does fine: everyone else gets to shine.

ST MARTIN’S LANE stars Quasimodo; Scarlett O’Hara; Henry Higgins; Harmonica specialty; Dr. Owen Jones; Mrs. Dorbell; commercial traveler; other commercial traveler; Adrien van Rijn – Rembrandt’s Brother; Inspector Dobie/Hollis/McInerney/Ashley/Charlton/Horridge/Shott/Barnard/Holly/Cardby; and Granny Tremarney – Sir Humphrey’s Tenant.