Archive for the Sport Category

Not Acting But Drowning

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being disappointed by Ken Russell’s book Directing Film when it came out. Picking it up again, I was more impressed, but I could still see what bothered me originally — unlike the Lumet and Mackendrick books, which are masterpieces of the genre, Russell divides himself between general knowledge stuff about who does what on a film set — this stuff is suitable for precocious children interested in getting into the movies — and amusing anecdotes from his distinguished career. This is the stuff I enjoyed this time, because Mad Ken tells a great yarn (see below). But there’s so much the book doesn’t cover — the chapter on shooting says nothing about camera placement, camera movement, lighting, which is all stuff Russell knew about and did brilliantly, in collaboration with such cinematographers as Dick Bush, Billy Williams, Douglas Slocombe, David Watkin, Peter Suschitzky, Jordan Cronenweth… Only Ken could tell us how he approached actually filming those musical numbers, nun orgies, peyote trips… the editor should have insisted he write about this.

But the anecdotes are terrific, and some even teach valuable lessons, though what you take away from the one coming up depends on you and your moral compass. Ken has just finished telling us how me made the mistake of casting an actress in a supporting role for THE MUSIC LOVERS, without having heard her speak. She had a strong Canadian accent so he ended up cutting all her lines. We’re on to MAHLER. Now read on ~

Even so, the experience taught me to be well on my guard in future and to take an actor’s talents according to his CV with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless such is the cunning of the average thespian that they are able to slip through one’s defences and pull a fast one. After all, they are ‘actors’ and learn their survival techniques from an early age, as I found to my cost on Mahler.

Casting the young Gustav was a bit of a problem owing to the fact that he had to ride, swim and play the piano. Most of the boys I auditioned could manage two out of three, but finding a contender who could handle the lot proved difficult. Finally I settled for Gary-someone-or-other, who assured me he was fine so far as his athletic abilities were concerned, but was a bit rusty on the piano. I watched him play and thought if I ever made a film of Frankenstein’s monster as a young piano prodigy, I need look no further than Gary. However, he read his lines well and looked remarkably like Robert Powell, who was playing Mahler the man. I should have remembered my experience on the Tchaikovsky film and been warned.

So, on the understanding that he practised the piano every day, I hired him. After all, he only had to play scales and I assumed he could manage that with ease. He was a bright boy, keen as Coleman’s, and desperate to do the part.

I stopped worrying and got caught up in the hurly-burly of pre-production, but still managed to phone him from time to time to see how he was progressing. Gary was never there; he was always down at the baths, according to his mother, who added reassuringly that the piano tuition was coming on fine. I guess I should have smelt a rat — a water rat — but I had far greater problems to sort out and missed the obvious.

What should have been obvious became horrifyingly so on choppy Derwentwater five weeks later. We had reached the point in the schedule where the young Mahler, wishing to show off to his school chums, attempts to demonstrate that he is as at home in the water as they are, by plunging into the chilly waters of the lake in  foolhardy attempt to swim across it. In the event he only manages a few yards before getting into difficulties and being ignominiously rescued.

So, imagine the scene. There we are, with me and my camera crew in a boat moored a little offshore, and young Gary poised on the water’s edge in his underwear ready to plunge in, swim into close-up, become exhausted, and start to drown. After a few seconds of this I’d say ‘cut’, and he’d be hauled safely on board. Everyone knew exactly what was expected of them and we were all keyed up for the take, when Gary’s forlorn little voice was caught up by the wind and whipped across the choppy waters towards me.

‘Mr Russell,’ he shouted through cupped hands. ‘I’ve got a confession to make… I lied to you, I can’t swim! I can only manage a few strokes.’ So that’s why he was always down at the baths when he should have been practising the piano, I thought, before shouting back at him.

‘Never mind, Gary, just do your best, swim out a few strokes — you needn’t even get out of your depth and then pretend to get into difficulties.’

‘But Mr Russell, I don’t want to, I’m scared.’

‘Nonsense! You can do it if you try,’ I shouted back with a touch of steel in my voice. ‘Ready now — roll camera, action!’

It’s amazing how that word ‘ACTION’ galvanizes the mind. Shout ‘Action’ through a loud hailer with command and conviction and you can get a ten-stone weakling to move mountains and pigs to fly. Even our Gary was galvanized sufficiently to wade into the water and take the plunge, for all the world like a cross-channel record breaker. He got all of three yards, started blubbing, and waded shivering and snivelling back to shore. This was disastrous. Defeat was staring us in the face. True, we’d got him in the water and starting to swim, but that was all in long shot. We still needed a few shots in close-up of him swimming and getting into difficulties. And the drowning scene was crucial to the film — we simply had to have it.

‘Great, Gary, we’ve got it,’ I shouted. ‘Now just jump in and we’ll row you out here to discuss the next scene before the light goes.’ He wasn’t happy, but before he could object an assistant director had bundled him into a boat and started rowing.

‘Here, Gary, let me give you a hand,’ I said as he was brought alongside. Trustingly he did so, whereupon I sort of lost my balance and poor Gary was hurled into the deep — as both boats pulled away from him like mad and the camera, primed for the crucial moment, purred into action. And what do you know? Gary managed to swim half a dozen strong strokes before giving up the ghost. It was the most convincing drowning scene I have ever seen on screen. The little bugger couldn’t ride a horse either — so we tied him to te saddle and whipped the stallion into a gallop — only kidding! HONEST!

Gary Rich was the young actor. He didn’t immediately take early retirement after this rough treatment, as I had feared, and was actually cast by Russell again in TOMMY the following year. A land-based role, thankfully. The following year he DID pack it in, but it doesn’t look like MAHLER was the deciding factor. Looking at the shots, I’m not quite convinced it happened the way Russell remembered it, which may be a relief to some of you.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bull!

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , on September 17, 2017 by dcairns

One last Stan Laurel solo film, then we can move on. MUD AND SAND is Stan’s epic denunciation of Rudolph Valentino (here, Rhubarb Vaseline). All the intertitles, or nearly all, rely on bull-based humour.

Hey, I’m not knocking it.

Visual gags are little more varied, depending largely on the deflation of Dorothy Arzner’s melodrama with pratfalls, but Stan’s first, successful corrida, shot from outside the arena walls, is impressively silly. As the other matadors-to-be anxiously wait for Stan to be carried out arrayed on a stretcher with limbs akimbo, like his predecessors, a stuffed cow flies over the wall, crashing unconvincingly to the ground. And then it all happens again.

The repetition of gags is an interesting phenomenon. Buster Keaton didn’t go in for it, unless he could play a variation on the gag to surprise the audience. I suspect this proud refusal to be predictable was a big part of why he was less popular than Chaplin and Lloyd.

Chaplin repeats incessantly, and the recurring arse-kicks or pratfalls become part of a structured dance. Stan just repeats where it seems likely to get another laugh. It’s been suggested that Laurel & Hardy relied more on predictability than surprise: showing the audience the banana peel before it’s slipped on. The comedy coming from the expected gag happening right on cue. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Everybody shows the banana peel first. But only Buster has characters walk over it without slipping — outsmarting or “double-crossing” the audience.

I want to try to analyse L&H’s approach more closely. I do think they’re the funniest, in terms of intensity and volume and duration and frequency of laughs, of any classic era comedians. It doesn’t matter if you personally like them or not — I think their success is measurable and would be borne out by any laffometer. And they seem to use both jokes of predictability and jokes of surprise — the former making the latter more surprising. And of course there’s the measured pace. They jettison entirely the myriad advantages of pace, to concentrate on getting the most out of every joke by worrying it to death. But there’s even more going on than that, and I want to explore it.

This will mean looking at talkies, since I think the talkies are their funniest films. But maybe a silent or two also…

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…