Archive for the FILM Category

A man walks through a door funny

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2017 by dcairns

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Do I need to explain the title? I will if you want me to.

So having watched the later Esther Williams spectaculars, JUPITER’S DARLING, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, EASY TO LOVE and DANGEROUS WHEN WET (plus ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME) we eventually ran an early effort, BATHING BEAUTY, which sadly has nothing to do with Mack Sennett but features a scene I’d heard about, without recalling what movie it was from…

First, this film — it has Red Skelton as hero, getting more screen time than Esther, and it has Basil Rathbone as a louse, and an all-too brief Margaret Dumont bit. MGM evidently didn’t have confidence in Esther carrying a film yet (but her low-key performing style is DELIGHTFUL) so they stuff the film with all the crap distractions they can find — Xavier Cugat, pint-sized cutie Jean Porter, wild organist Ethel Smith, Lina Romay (not the Jesus Franco star, wonderful though that would be), Harry James and his orchestra, Helen Forrest, Colombian baritone Carlos Ramirez (although “Colombian baritone” sounds like something horrible they do to you in the drugs trade to send a strong message)… at the end there’s a big ridiculous water pageant so Esther can do her stuff, but she remains dry apart from that and the opening scene, so it’s really just a foretaste of the wonders to come. George Sidney directs with a lot of lush colour and swooping crane-work. Directorial suavity allows Harry James to float over the heads of his big band while blasting his trumpet…

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The film has seven credited screenwriters, absurdly — the story is paper-thin and the runtime is about fifty per cent irrelevant musical numbers, but I’m interested mainly in an uncredited scenarist, Buster Keaton, who was back working at MGM as a gag man, getting paid about a hundredth of what he’d earned there as a star, and happy to get it. They called Buster in having trapped Red Skelton in a closet with a big dog outside. Red has to escape the house and get back to his dorm or he’ll be expelled.

First he drags up in Esther’s clothes which he can somehow fit, but the dog recognizes him even in disguise (must be those overdeveloped smile muscles). Then he gets the idea of meowing, waving a fox fur at the hound, and throwing it out the window. The dog obligingly bounds out the window in pursuit. Red slams the window and starts to leave, but the dog is now waiting at the front door.

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Nice protracted bit where Red rushes from door to window and back, always finding the mutt waiting for him at either aperture. The dog isn’t really dislikably fierce — one actually admires his, ahem, doggedness.

This is all quite amusing but apparently none of the seven or was it eight writers (yup, IMDb supplies an uncredited eighth) could think of a solution that would allow Red to escape.

Buster suggested he go to the door, unfasten the hinges, and then lift the detached door. Holding it by the inside of the frame, Red turns it like a revolving door — he leaves the house as the dog enters, trying to get at him. The dog ends up stuck indoors and Red is free.

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The fact that this is an engineering gag marks it out as recognizably Buster’s, even if we hadn’t been told.

There’s another Buster moment though. As the only male student at a girl’s college, (long story — it took eight writers to write it — or nine, counting Buster) Red is forced to attend a eurythmics class, which turns out to be just plain old ballet. Former vaudevillian Ann Codee is teacher, mercilessly slapping Red around. At one point, she orders him to put his foot on the bar. Red does so, stretching his poor abductor muscles pitifully, then unaccountably decides to put his other foot up on the bar too. He succeeds, momentarily, only to fall on his ass on account of not having anything holding him up.

Fiona and I both recognized this gag — I was going to sat it’s the first movie pratfall Buster ever performed. In THE BUTCHER BOY (1917), Buster’s flap shoes get stuck to the floor with molasses. Tugging his right foot free, he places it on the counter to keep it out of the sticky mess. Then he tugs the left foot free and places it next to the right, for neatness’ sake, an instant before he finds himself sat on the floor. But in fact, that’s not what happens in THE BUTCHER BOY, that version of events only occured when Buster recreated the sequence in his TV show, as seen in Kevin Brownlow’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. And that’s AFTER the Red Skelton iteration of the “put your feet up” gag. But I still believe it’s Buster’s idea.

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The whole ballet routine is very good work from Skelton. He gets a sweetie wrapper stuck to his foot (shades of the molasses gag) and is trying to get rid of it while dancing, passing it from foot to hand to hand to other ballerina, who passes it on around the room via every other girl and back to Red. A nice idea, beautifully staged by Sidney, performed by Skelton and the cast — and almost certainly conceived by Buster.

Like being nuzzled by a tenement

Posted in FILM with tags , on January 18, 2017 by dcairns

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Out of the blue, a relative of my late friend Lawrie Knight got in touch to offer me some photographs of the Great Man. Here’s Lawrie in Africa, engaged in some documentary or other. His cameraman, he told me, had a habit of wading into a (possibly crocodile-infested) lake in the middle of the plains and yelling out to the reverberant open space, “IT’S ALL HAPPENING!”

He also said that befriending an elephant was like being nuzzled by a tenement.

Sadly, Lawrie’s collection of movie stills, including unique behind-the-scenes shots from BLACK NARCISSUS, are still missing.

Squeak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by dcairns

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CHINATOWN. Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes arrives at a swank mansion.

As he approaches the door, he hears something.

Evidently it’s coming from the limo. It is a squeaking sound.

Jack/Jake approaches the front door and rings the bell. A Chinese butler answers it, takes his card, and shuts the door in his face. While Jack awaits the manservant’s return, his attention is again caught by that damned squeaking. He looks back at the limo.

And now a chauffeur appears from behind the car, wiping it with a piece of chamois leather. Squeak squeak squeak.

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This always gets a great laugh. It intrigues me. I laughed too. But why? There is a mysterious sound. Then we find out the ordinary explanation. And for some reason that’s funny. It also seems apt in this film: there is  mystery, even in an apparently mundane setting. And we learn the solution. A microcosm for the whole film?

ERASERHEAD. Jack Nance as Henry Spencer visits his girlfriend at the parents’ house. For some time the conversation has to compete with an inexplicable squeaking noise.

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Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

Henry eventually looks in the direction of the sound.

On the floor, a bitch is nursing a litter of pups.

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This is also weirdly funny. Lynch being who he is gets more discomfort out of the protracted and surreal noise, and the explanation when it comes still has a slightly icky biological feel: the anxiety of procreation, a major theme of the film. But we should not take any comfort from the fact that Lynch, like Polanski, eventually explains away this mystery. He can’t be relied upon to do so. The gag works better as an example of Henry’s curious and fatal passivity. This totally bizarre noise is whining away, and it takes him like a minute to muster the elementary curiosity to look for the source.

Poor Henry.