Archive for the Theatre Category

Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Slaves to the Rhythm

“Stop staring! This isn’t a wax museum!”

Elizabeth Taylor, Young Toscanini

Every now and then, you see a film that makes you wonder why it was a success. (My current object of curiosity is Moonlight.) More often, perhaps, you see a film that makes you wonder why it flopped. And on very rare occasions, you see a film so spectacularly deranged that you wonder why (and how) it was ever made at all. The most infamous flop in the career of Italian maestro Franco Zeffirelli, the 1988 epic Young Toscanini is part of this small and highly selective club. It also marked a doomed attempt at a comeback of that most legendary of stars, Elizabeth Taylor. She had not appeared in a major motion picture since the 1980 Agatha Christie thriller The Mirror Crack’d, where she played (convincingly) a washed-up film star attempting a comeback. Now her friend Zeffirelli cast her as a retired opera diva attempting a comeback. There is a fine line between typecasting and outright sadism. If nothing else, Young Toscanini makes you wonder where that line is.

You might call Young Toscanini a biopic, except it bears not the slightest resemblance to any person’s actual life. The minor 80s Brat Packer C Thomas Howell is cast, theoretically, as the ambitious boy conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the start of the film, we see him audition as a cellist for the orchestra at the La Scala opera house in Milan. “He looks too pretty to play the cello,” quips one of the judges. Indeed, the lovely Howell looks far too pretty to do most things, most notably act. His face frozen in a permanent pout, this young man flares his nostrils, clenches his jaw and sucks in his cheeks in ways that prophesy Ben Stiller’s performance as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander. When the judges at La Scala fail to respect his talent, this young upstart storms out and tells them to go to Hell. But a wily music promoter (John Rhys-Davies) hires him as accompanist for an operatic tour of South America.

The lad sets sail for the New World on a plush ocean liner. (The year is 1886, when folk travelled with a modicum of style.) The opera company and other first-class passengers lounge about the Grand Salon like a gaggle of refugees from Death in Venice (1971). Poverty-stricken emigrants suffer nobly below decks. Among them are a group of nuns, on their way to do God’s work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their leader is the annoying and overbearing Mother Allegri (Pat Heywood – who still seems to be playing her Nurse role from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet). Among them is a comely young novice named Sister Margherita (Sophie Ward), who has left her upper-class family in Milan to dedicate her life to the poor. Being the two prettiest and dullest people on board ship, she and Toscanini promptly fall in love. As in most Zeffirelli films, it is love of a frustrated and forbidden kind – because, you see, he belongs to Music while she belongs to God!

When it comes to photogenic but overpoweringly tedious young lovers, Franco Zeffirelli certainly does have form. Over the decades, he has given us Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968), Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Jonathon Schaech and Angela Bettis in Sparrow (1993). That is a roster of non-talent of which few film-makers would dare to dream. Yet so far, Young Toscanini is not appreciably worse than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The ship is more lushly appointed, the extras are better-dressed and the romantic leads are slimmer and more attractive. Sensing that all is not as it should be, Zeffirelli stages his ‘King of the World’ moment with young Toscanini standing on deck in a raging storm, pretending to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music surges to orgasmic heights, as the waves crash over him and soak him to the skin. It is, beyond a doubt, the loudest and silliest wet dream ever depicted on screen.

Finally, we get to Rio de Janeiro and the young man’s long-promised encounter with La Liz. (She is, after all, the main reason we are watching this film in the first place.) Because the Rio of the 1980s looked not the least bit like the Rio of 100 years before, Zeffirelli shot in the picturesque Italian city of Bari. It is, predictably, a sunlit tropical paradise of lush green parks, sumptuous Art Nouveau villas and well-scrubbed favelas full of adorably smiling Negro children. There is also – to Toscanini’s unspeakable horror – slavery, the legal and licensed buying and selling of human beings. It is still a source of shame to Brazilians that theirs was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, which it did not do until 1888. Doubtless, there are films to be made on this topic. I would recommend they begin by not copying Young Toscanini.

Having come face to face with God, Art, Love and his own nascent revolutionary conscience, Toscanini is just about ready for his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor. Her character, Nadia Bulichova, is a Russian opera diva of legendary glamour and temperament. Now retired from the stage, she is comfortably ensconced as the mistress of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil (Philippe Noiret). She has agreed to a comeback in Aïda, the Verdi grand opera about a lovelorn Ethiopian slave in Ancient Egypt. (You see, there are parallels between Art and Life!) The young Arturo’s job is to persuade her to show up for rehearsals. Her villa is a luxuriant indoor jungle, complete with squawking parrots and chattering monkeys. From here on in, Young Toscanini threatens to become a deeply bizarre fusion of Black Orpheus (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Alas, it would take a more skilled cineaste than Zeffirelli to make that happen.

In her comeback role, Elizabeth Taylor looks more svelte and glamorous than she had at any time since before her Oscar-winning tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Her performance is everything the rest of the film is not. She is passionate, flamboyant, imposing, capricious and downright regal. Her voice is dubbed in Italian, so this is essentially silent-screen acting – yet it is up there with the very best. Her wardrobe (designed by Tom Rand) includes some rather odd fashion choices. One gown with a tight indigo bodice, deep crimson sleeves and gaudy scarlet train makes her look, momentarily, like a squat strutting peacock. But as anyone who has seen The Driver’s Seat (1974) will attest, La Liz triumphed over far worse sartorial disasters. Zeffirelli predicted she would win a third Oscar for this role. In fact, Young Toscanini was never released in the USA or most other countries.

At the film’s climax, Taylor (in full blackface and clanking ‘ethnic’ jewellery) interrupts the gala first night of Aïda during her own big solo – and makes an impassioned plea to the Emperor to free the slaves of Brazil! It is a moment of truly surpassing awfulness, one that transcends mere categories of Kitsch and Camp and goes straight to the heart of what Bad Movies are all about. The public applauds wildly apart from Noiret, who looks on with the air of a man (and an actor) impervious to all shame. Zeffirelli has said repeatedly in interviews that “I see my work as a lifetime crusade against bad taste.” Fortunately, only a few journalists have been cruel enough to ask him about Young Toscanini.

David Melville

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

Whistle, Blore

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by dcairns

James Harvey, in The Romantic Comedy, tries to make sense of the various studios’ outputs during the screwball comedy years (1934-maybe 1941?).

Warners, who had been kings of the hardboiled comedy, were not particularly distinguished in the field of screwball comedy, perhaps because their tight factory approach to production didn’t translate readily into daffiness.

MGM were even more regimented, but Harvey argues that their commitment to gloss and sheen and class gave them a valuable angle on screwball’s tendency to locate dizziness in high places, plus they had Powell & Loy, and he gives credit to Woody Van Dyke also.

Columbia shouldn’t have had a hope, but they had Capra, who helped inaugurate the whole movement before backing away from it as rapidly as he could.

Paramount felt the allure of high-gloss spectacle, and was a flakey kind of studio with Lubitsch and Leisen to hand.

RKO had Fred & Ginger, their only real entree into the world of light comedy.

Fox was hampered by the kind of stars they had under contract — we just watched CAFE METROPOLE, which has a pretty clever script, but lovely as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are to look at, they don’t deliver the kind of attack and sharpness the comedy needs, and even as able a farceur as Adolph Menjou is left high & dry by the flabby pace. Harvey suggests that director Gregory Ratoff never really got off the ground because he was stuck at Fox.

Well, we liked IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER much more than we expected — it’s Warners and it’s screwball, with what you would think would be unsuitable stars — Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Olivia DeHavilland and some pasteboard point-of-sale device as the fourth corner of the romantic rhombus — Patrick Knowles. Perfectly adequate, you know, and more handsome than most UK imports, but unmemorable even when he’s in front of you. The miracle is that the unsuitable stars prove to be just right, and director Archie Mayo keeps some of the pace that distinguished Warners’ pre-codes.

Bette and Leslie play feuding actors/lovers, finishing a run of Romeo and Juliet and constantly either breaking up or making up. He’s an incurable Romeo/Lothario and is worried that his moral bank balance is overdrawn. He feels the need for a good deed. Olivia is a starstruck teen smitten with him, and Knowles is her jealous beau, who approaches Howard and asks him to end Olivia’s mooning by turning up at her country seat and behaving like a boor.

The complications ensue when everything Howard does to make himself unappealing only deepens the girl’s affection. Knowles is beside himself, and then Bette turns up…

Of course, Bette as a fiery, tempestuous ham is perfect casting, and she did have comic flair as ALL ABOUT EVE shows. Howard proves to be a very nimble light comedian in the Rex Harrison mold. Olivia’s role is theoretically a lot less interesting, but she plays it like a maniac, making her character’s romanticism seem on the verge of lunacy. When Leslie tries being crude and rough, impersonating the villain from a play he’d triumphed in, she responds eagerly. “You don’t suppose I’ve aroused her ‘slap-me-again-I-love-it’ complex?” he worries.

Pleasingly, this screwball, though ritzy and upper-class in setting, nicely Wodehousian in some respects, does retain some of the best pre-code Warner style, notably a “whatever-works” approach to morality. It’s not specifically scandalous in any particular way, but it does require you to root for scoundrels and have genial contempt for “normal” people.

Oh, but best of all, as the film’s definitive portal into the heights of screwball, Eric Blore plays Howard’s dresser/valet, an ex-vaudevillian bird imitator, who still trills, hoots and squawks in moments of high emotion. Our guests for the evening were much taken with this thespian, and demanded second helpings, so we ran TOP HAT, which is Blore in full flow, and pretty definitive screwball even if it’s early and is also a musical.