Archive for the literature Category

For people who don’t like yacht clubs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2018 by dcairns

LOVE AFFAIRS TO REMEMBER

Wild speculation and biography department.

I feel like I’m on the verge of outing Leo McCarey. Always a questionable activity, especially when it’s based on textual readings of an artist’s work. Still, it seemed harmless in this case to throw some mad theories out there.

I got interested in some odd parallels between Hitchcock and McCarey, two utterly different artists — one who emphasised above all else the careful preparation of every element of his filmmaking practice, the other who stressed the value of improvisation. McCarey apparently forced a reluctant Cary Grant to improvise on THE AWFUL TRUTH, and Hitchcock for once allowed him to on TO CATCH A THIEF. Although I always wondered if that was just Hitchcock trying to throw shade on his scriptwriter, John Michael Hayes, who had been getting too much attention in the press. Biographers’ attempts to ascribe Hitch’s liberation to the effects of the breezy location founder in the face of obvious process photography.

But here are the connections: both men were Catholic, McCarey more stridently, Hitchcock in a more subtle and interesting way. Both men only had one wife all their lives, and one child, a daughter. The one wife fits well with Catholicism, the one child not so much. In Hitchcock’ case, we pretty much know the explanation: after successfully procreating and giving us the essential Patricia, he and Alma packed the whole sex thing in and concentrated on making pictures, with the occasional foray into harassment and assault of lading ladies for Hitch. With McCarey, there might have been some trouble having children: he got married young, at seventeen or eighteen in 1914, but Mrs. Stella Martin McCarey did not present an heir, Virginia (some sources say Mary), until around 1927. And then there’s all that sexual frustration in the films: Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Paul Newman in RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! are sex-starved because of their spouse’s obsessions.

Meanwhile, according to what we would have to call gossip, McCarey was frequently unfaithful. He hinted at this himself when he said that THE AWFUL TRUTH was inspired by events in his own life, but he was always quick to say “but not the adultery part,” with a quip like, “don’t print this, my wife will kill me,” sometimes thrown in.

But almost in the same emphysemic breath, he would tell Peter Bogdanovich about trying to pick up Vina Delmar before discovering she was the author of a story he admired, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. But then it turns out that Vina Delmar (like McCarey?) was two people: she wrote with her husband, Eugene (real name Albert Otto Zimmerman), under her name. So which one was McCarey trying to pick up? Admittedly, Vina was pretty cute. But anyhow, when McCarey admits to a “very close” collaboration with Vina on MWFT and THE AWFUL TRUTH, he was in reality collaborating with two people. “Nice man, that Mr. McCarey,” said Vina, describing a charming and laid-back writing process in which McCarey would apologise if they didn’t like his ideas, and apologise again if he didn’t like theirs.

(I mentioned to our friend Nicola that McCarey’s womanizing caused him great Catholic guilt, and Nicola, who knows whereof she speaks, corrected me: “He had Catholic guilt because he was Catholic.)

McCarey had just lost his father, whom he loved. But McCarey Sr. was also the man who forced Leo to become a lawyer against his will, so the relationship may have been a bit more complicated than is admitted. It’s striking that, while dad made his fortune as a boxing promoter, McCarey learned how to box from a nun at his school (see THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S). Capra tells us that the elder McCarey would stage massive newsboy fights, in which dozens of scrappy kids would throw their shoes into the ring and then battle to retrieve a matching pair, the winner being chosen by crowd popularity rather than actual success. Rewarded with a gold coin, he would then walk home wearing two left shoes. But little Leo was banned from these exhibitions — he would sneak in without dad’s permission. And of course the mass shoe fights are transformed into the escalating street battles of the Laurel & Hardy silents McCarey supervised, starting with PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP.

McCarey determined, on his father’s death, to never again make a film he wasn’t dead set on making. He had just had the great success of RUGGLES OF RED GAP and the less happy experience of THE MILKY WAY, in which he couldn’t get the results he wanted from Harold Lloyd. Also, on that picture, the accident-prone Leo drank milk from a contaminated cow and nearly died. His brother Ray finished the picture in his place. More about Ray, who is hardly ever mentioned, later.

Critically acclaimed, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW underperformed and basically got McCarey fired from Paramount (he held a lifelong grudge: “Every time I work for Paramount, it costs them a half million more than it should”), whereas THE AWFUL TRUTH at Columbia was a massive hit and won him the Oscar.

YACHT RUNS WILD

McCarey was a member or at least associate of the Emerald Bay Yachting Association, “the yacht club for people who don’t like yacht clubs,” originally “the Young Men’s Purity, Total Abstinence and Snooker Pool Association,” in essence a debauched drinking club with John Ford as a prominent member. Devotion to drink was not enough to gain admission, you had to be an “ambulance drunkard.” Alcohol may have been the real cause of McCarey’s “bone disease” after his Oscar win, and of the near-fatal car crash that stopped him directing M FAVORITE WIFE. When he made LOVE AFFAIR, where you begin to see religion forcing its way in — I think the film is uneven, the delicate balance of McCarey’s best work already beginning to skew. And on the night of the preview, he drunkenly drove his car onto and along the railway tracks, pretending he was in charge of the Super Chief, while editor Edward Dmytryk, in the passenger seat, tried to recall if the Santa Fe ran a night train.

Here, McCarey seems guilty not of recycling his life into his films, but his films into his life — the story recalls the conclusion of TWO TARS, a Laurel & Hardy short he supervised in 1928.

Then McCarey made the even bigger mistake of going into business with Howard Hughes, which ate up the next few years of his life and produced nothing. McCarey, forever recycling his life in pictures, wanted to make a movie about moviemaking, under the title (wait for it) QUEER PEOPLE. The project fizzled when Hughes became obsessed with making THE OUTLAW and McCarey couldn’t even get him on the phone: the men ended up suing each other.

Then we have the ragged, bizarre ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON, the wildly successful priest films, and the ragged GOOD SAM, whose release in 1948 coincides with Ray McCarey’s suicide. He was found kneeling by his bedside like a praying child, with a bottle of pills beside him. McCarey merely said his brother had been ill for some time. Depression, alcoholism, or unrelated physical suffering that made life unbearable? This is the other Hitchcock connection, the less successful, suicidal brother. An even bigger trauma if you throw in dedicated Catholicism. Ray had been a fellow director at Roach Studios, but had mainly made B-pictures. Following in big brother’s footsteps.

Ray McCarey, occluded.

 

You still find people calling McCarey a nice man socially, at this time, but John Huston calls him macchiavellian, and his writer on MY SON JOHN, a fellow commie-hater, came to believe he had lost his mind. Red-hating dominates the McCarey of MSJ and SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, with RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! offering a satire of jingoism which, along with the burlesquing of the father in MSJ that complicates things a bit. But, as David Ehrenstein has commented right here, MSJ doubles as a homosexual panic picture, red terror as pink terror. McCarey comments that a big theme of the film is the college-educated son being embarrassed by his plebeian father. But it’s also the elegant, well-mannered son embarrassing the macho dad. It’s easy to see that the class elements here derive from McCarey’s own “loving” relationship with his father, but where does the sexual subtext originate? (The film is never able to address WHY Robert Walker’s character has strayed into the arms of the commies: we get no politics at all, merely a sort of pop-Freudian reading based on his domineering father and over-protective mother, the classic psychologist’s set-up for the dread sexual inversion.)

(Incidentally, Frank McHugh reprises his role of Father O’Dowd from GOING MY WAY in MY SON JOHN, making this the third panel in McCarey’s triptych of cosy religious movies, which just makes things weirder.)

Everyone seems to agree, without there really being a definite source, that McCarey was a serial cheater. Maybe trying to prove his masculinity to himself. Maybe he had no sex life at home. Maybe he was just compulsively charming and highly sexed. Did he just go with women or did homosexual flings enhance his stockpile of Catholic guilt? This is the man credited with creating Cary Grant. The floundering deceit that forms much of the comedy in MY FAVORITE WIFE does seem to support the idea of McCarey the philanderer…

A BRIEF DISCOURSE ON NAMES

McCarey says he and his wife called each other Tom & Jerry (two inseparable comic strip friends, long before the cat & mouse double act used the names ironically). Tom & Jerry is the name of an episode of Screen Director’s Playhouse McCarey wrote and directed. Jerry is a name which recurs obsessively in Leo’s work. Skeets Gallagher in LET’S GO NATIVE  Gloria Swanson in INDISCREET, Cary Grant in THE AWFUL TRUTH, all play Jerries. So who was Lucy? Beulah Bondi in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH, Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Helen Hayes in MY SON JOHN play variants on this name. And Anita? Joyce Compton in WILD COMPANY, Ruth Hall in THE KID FROM SPAIN and Fay Bainter in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW all play Anitas. Leo was named after his French mother, Leora. (My friend Lawrie once claimed that John Guillermin’s peculiar temperament derived from his Franco-Irish parentage. Leo had the same problem.) There are several Pats and Michaels too, of both sexes, and several Joes and Marys, but I don’t attach much significance to these commonplace names. Tuesday Weld is the only Comfort Goodpasture you’ll find in Leo’s filmography.

Dotting one’s mistresses names through one’s dramatis personae would fit well with Leo’s telling interviewers how THE AWFUL TRUTH was based on his own marriage, except the adultery part (then why include it? It barely makes sense in the film) and then hinting that maybe that too was an inspiration.

THE OLD SEX THING AGAIN

McCarey told Charles Laughton that he regretted his philandering, “But here I am sitting next to a pretty girl in the commissary, and I find myself saying to her, ‘You eat your lettuce so pretty.’ I’m love and I can’t help it.”

He also told Bogdanovich that the phone booth scene in MY FAVORITE WIFE in which Cary Grant calls Gail Patrick and says he’s at the airport, then exits his booth and collides with her, really happened to him — but he declined to describe the circumstances.

I guess the sexual ambiguity in MY FAVORITE WIFE is probably just a result of the screwball genre’s burlesquing of societal norms, and a natural response to certain qualities in the Cary Grant persona. MY SON JOHN is harder to account for, and it’s hard to see why the Catholic and avowedly straight Leo would be drawn to such a theme if it had no personal resonance for him. Unless… his brother?

These stories are drawn mainly from Jerome McKeever’s excellent essay cited yesterday. The lurid speculations are my own.

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Acting the Fool

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by dcairns

The key missing Leo McCarey film, which some lucky New Yorkers got to see a year or so ago, is PART TIME WIFE, a proto-screwball comedy from 1930. Parts of it were recycled in THE AWFUL TRUTH — the dog, and the lawyer bickering with his wife. Without being able to see that one, I’m left with McCarey’s early broad comedies, mostly starring clowns like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Bros, Mae West. DUCK SOUP is a masterpiece, the rest vary, but they rarely suggest the miraculous looseness of his mature work, the stuff which reaches a pinnacle with RUGGLES OF RED GAP, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, THE AWFUL TRUTH.

INDISCREET (1931) is more interesting to me than slapdash slapstick like LET’S GO NATIVE. It stars Gloria Swanson and Ben Lyon and has a kind of melodrama plot in which Gloria has to save her little sister from marrying a louse. She knows he’s a louse because he used to be her lover. A delicate problem.

Within that framework, McCarey pulls off some engaging farce — Gloria tries to put off the wedding by planting a rumour that there’s madness in her family, and then acting the part at a swank dinner. It’s not as funny as Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant’s floozy sister Lola in THE AWFUL TRUTH, but it’s pretty good. Especially because it’s Gloria.

The climax also has Gloria trying to smuggle her way onto an ocean liner past a suspicious guard, a lovely piece of low comedy — the ghost of screwball yet to come — a great, glamorous, serious star being silly.

Cutie Barbara Kent is cute, creep Monroe Owsley is creepy, and there’s a glorious, cartoony, entirely wrong performance by Arthur Lake who would later find his spot by playing a cartoon character, Dagwood Bumstead in the BLONDIE series.

The movie was planned as a musical, but because a bunch of the 1929 crop of musicals had flopped, the studio ordered McCarey to remove all the Buddy DeSylva songs (he retained one), a shame, since Gloria had a fine operatic voice. Rewriting the script was done in a hurry, and Leo was dissatisfied with the results. These early films are often most interesting for the ways they echo the early Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase films, and anticipate the later masterpieces. But this one also shows an early near-success in McCarey’s struggle to transition from shorts to features. How to sustain the momentum in a comedy over ninety minutes? McCarey’s solution, in the end, would be to make dramas, with comic developments and tone and climaxes. THE AWFUL TRUTH is a divorce drama. MY FAVORITE WIFE is a problem play.

Reading: I got ahold of Leland Poague’s The Hollywood Professionals volume on McCarey, but didn’t care for it too much. There’s nothing about the filmmaking in it. But then I found Edinburgh University Library had a PDF of The McCarey Touch: The Life and Films of Leo McCarey by Jerome M. McKeever. It’s a marvelous overview. McKeever seems to have dug up every bit of research material possible, and his observations are astute and illuminating. This was his PhD thesis — it should be published!

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.