Archive for the Theatre Category

The Three Stooges of Grief

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2019 by dcairns

Okay. After further Stooge-viewing, I can offer more “insights.”

(One) Watching with company helps. For me, there’s still a point of depression that kicks in after two shorts, but you obviously get bigger laughs with a friend present, and I can imagine a big cinema audience would amplify things further.

Old womanhaters.

(Two) Some of the shorts have more to offer than others. It might be the presence of a guest star — expected, like Billy Gilbert, or unexpected, like Lucille Ball. Or it might be an actual plot, as in PUNCH DRUNKS, where we get to see the Stooges meet up as if for the first time — Moe is a fight manager, Curly a waiter, Larry a violinist, and Curley becomes an unbeatable berserker whenever he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel” played. Or it might be all that plus the whole thing being a kind of grotesque operetta, as in WOMAN HATERS, an ode to/spoof of misogyny, performed in song and recitative.

Curky does his celebrated Jean Cocteau routine.

(Three) Curly is the most appealing actor. Moe is a horrible character, played with some skill admittedly (and as a unit, the Stooges are exemplary in what they do, if you can admit the need for anybody to do it at all). Whenever Moe gets a closeup, any laughter you might be working on dies before reaching the throat. And then you have a dead laugh lying on your stomach. Larry, apart from his fiddling, seems less of a character all round, and doesn’t really suggest the required dumbness. When you look at Moe and Larry together they seem like they ought to be starring in a film which would be called BILL AND TED GET ACROMEGALY. But Curly has all these weird mannerisms and non-sequiturs, which have nothing to do with real human behaviour — the strange butterfly movements, the dances, the abstract vocalisations, the nonsense utterances — “victim of circumstance” — “that’s a coincidence.” And he’s the most creative, adding flinches everywhere, as if constantly fearing the violence he is, in fact, going to receive.

Look at this image. Now try to think of something amusing.

(Four) I do have a fascination with unfunny clowns, or clowns who are only intermittently funny (Jerry Lewis is the King of Intermittence, but he can get me HYSTERICAL). I’ve watched less than ten Stooges shorts, and two of them begin with the Stooges begging on the streets. Not busking, like L&H, but merely BEGGING. And I think you’d find it hard to argue with the contention that we’re basically being asked to laugh at beggars. The way to enjoy this is to turn the laugh on the filmmakers, and laugh any time there’s a good joke but also laugh at the twisted nature of the endeavor, the tasteless, clueless approach to popular entertainment. There’s a contention that comedy is valuable when it punches UP and disagreeable when it punches DOWN. The Stooges shorts certainly contain a lot of punch-ups. But whereas Laurel & Hardy films have this strange duality (at least when Stan was in charge), where the boys are both the butt of the joke and the sole focus of our sympathy, in the Stooges films we are meant to laugh at the respectable citizens who get hurt and also at the idiots responsible, and we have no sympathy for anyone. I’m reminded of Fassbinder. Yes, I am: “I look to the left, and I look to the right, and I FIRE IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

Censored sequence from FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

(Five) In POP GOES THE EASEL, a deaf dowager type is introduced. We wait for some kind of comedy based on her mishearing, or forcing people to repeat themselves, but no. She’s merely PELTED WITH CLAY. Her deafness is introduced (by writer Felix Adler, who also worked for Lloyd and Stan & Ollie) merely because it was assumed that smacking a disabled person with clay would be even funnier than doing it to a not-yet-disabled person.

(Six) In MEN IN BLACK (!), directed by Leo McCarey’s tragic brother Ray, the boys are turned loose in a hospital. They knock their boss unconscious with a hammer, transport him to the Operating Room, open him up with a road drill and then leave all their instruments inside him. Ha. Ha. Ha. J.J. Hunsecker’s line about “cheap, gruesome gags,” seems an apt one here.

(Seven) It would be wrong to traduce all Stooges fans. But anyone who likes the Stooges above and beyond other vaudeville-type comics, I would view with suspicion. Sam Raimi, Mel Gibson and the Farrelly Brothers are the main Stoogites I can think of, and I feel their preference tells us a lot about them. I simply won’t watch Farrelly films, they make me laugh a fair bit but there’s always something that depresses me for days. And they are not well-made films. Mel Gibson, enough said. I’m told he includes an hommage (“Spread out!”) in APOCALYPTO. Think of it. His films really are all set in a nightmare world of continuous mayhem, just like the Stooges. Raimi at least incorporates his stoogisms into a burlesque vision of grueling horror, which seems like the right place for them.

Is it a mistake that Moe is labeled with the chemical formula, not of water, but of hydrogen peroxide? Was that a well-known formula the audience would laugh at?

(Eight) Behind-the-scenes-of-chaos personages in the early shorts include Clyde Bruckman, ace gagman and Keaton’s co-director on THE GENERAL, who later shot himself with Keaton’s gun. See HORSES’ COLLARS and learn why. Then there’s the truly magnificent anti-talent of Jules White, co-auteur of the Dogville Shorts, which I kind of adore for their sheer horror. I showed the canine reconstruction of WWI to students and asked, “How did it make you feel?” “Just angry,” came the reply. White also presided over the destruction of Buster Keaton at MGM. Lou Breslow, misguided genius behind reincarnated dog detective movie YOU NEVER CAN TELL, is also in the mix. But it never seems to make much difference who is involved. If you’re in hell, which particular imp is stirring your pot may not matter too much.

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Desperate Dane

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2019 by dcairns

I was always sort of curious about Tony Richardson’s HAMLET. And maybe the end result is more sort-of-interesting than truly compelling, but those kind of films are very attractive to blog about, I find…

Richardson made the film cheaply by shooting at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, using the backstage spaces, a lot of bare brick corridors, making for a dour and oppressive Elsinore… also, shooting practically the whole film in tight medium shots and close-up, so as to take the strain off the art department and put the emphasis on face and voice. But here’s where the artistry comes in, because while a film of HAMLET made up of close-ups sounds like a televisual thing, Richardson keeps his cast, and Gerry Fisher’s camera, in motion, continually cramming new faces into the frame in new compositions. It’s very, very inventive, and turns a budgetary consideration into a compelling artistic one. The way figures fall off into soft blurs as they recede; the way the ghost never appears on camera but impresses merely by his voice (uncredited — who?) and by a bright light on the astonished features of the onlookers; the way everyone is always just UP IN YOUR FACE…

The cast is pretty interesting: Nicol Williamson’s puffy, pallid face does not suggest that of a student, but name me a Hamlet who does. What he does have is the ability to speak his speeches like a normal human having a conversation (without trampling the pentameters), so that he’s at his very best in the more conversational scenes. Williamson is one of those actors who can get overexcited, so I’m slightly less enamoured of his Big Scenes, but once you get over the shock of a Hamlet who’s so physically unappealing (maybe this is my self-loathing Scots side talking) I think you’ll find him impressive.

Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia seems less naturalistic, but maybe because Marianne Faithfull does not have a naturalistic face, body or voice. She’s not like someone you’d expect to meet, though I warrant you’d count yourself lucky if you did. A bit like Fenella Fielding, her mouth assumes expressions impossible on a normal skull, but I don’t think it’s mere whimsy that compels her to do so. Her face just goes that way. It’s like she’s continually being called upon to say the words “stewed prunes.” So she’s more miraculous than credible, through no fault of her own. Unable to overcome her natural advantages. And I kind of question what she sees in the jowly Scotchman, but there it is.

Antony Hopkins and Judy Parfitt are both within a year of Williamson’s age, which makes their casting as his uncle and mother… questionable. But that’s practically a tradition too. Boost the Oedipal aspect by giving H a MILF of a mom. Of course, in terms of box office, and possibly in terms of artistic success, Richardson ought to have swapped his Hamlet with his Claudius, because a movie starring Hopkins as The Dane would still be shifting units today if he’d done so. But in fact, both Hopkins and Parfitt have been rendered less effective than they might be by some very odd direction. It’s clearly a decision Richardson made, something he wanted. They’re both amused by Hamlet’s grief and unconcerned when he goes mad. It’s quite hard to work out why they embark on subterfuges with Polonius to learn the cause of his derangement, because they really don’t seem bothered about it. Most peculiar.

Old Dark House Valuation

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from Hippfest’s screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY ~

John Willard’s 1922 comedy-thriller play The Cat and the Canary has been filmed four times: probably the 1939 version with Bob Hope is the most-screened; the second version, The Cat Creeps, from 1930, sadly seems to be lost, apart from a few fragments; the 1978 remake, a rare fully-clothed outing from soft-porn specialist Radley Metzger, is an oddity. But it’s this 1927 production from the German émigré director Paul Leni, that really tickles the ribs and sends shivers up the spine at the same time: a cinematic workout for the whole skeleton.

All the surviving footage from the 1930 version.

It’s also a highly cinematic spectacle, with a mobile camera that looms and lurches (at one point even taking the point-of-view of a painting as it falls from a wall), expressionistic sets, eccentric title cards and artful superimpositions – the invalid Cyrus West, encased in the medicine bottles that give him life, is attacked by giant black cats, embodiments of his greedy relatives: a startling image! And that’s just the opening sequence.

Leni had directed Waxworks in Germany, likewise a riot of visual ideas, but he had a playful side too: he seems to be the only man ever to adapt a crossword puzzle into a film. Sadly, he died too soon, but not before giving us a trio of superbly atmospheric, macabre movies, rounded out by The Last Warning (another horror-comedy) and The Man Who Laughs (indescribable: a Victor Hugo period drama which inspired Batman’s ever-grinning foe, the Joker). Another hit, the Charlie Chan thriller The Chinese Parrot, is sadly lost.

An eerie mansion; a bickering throng of relatives; a will to be read at midnight; an escaped lunatic; sliding panels and hidden passages; a vanishing corpse – the story offers a dizzying array of melodramatic clichés, sent up with gusto and presented with all the shadowy spookshow atmospherics Hollywood could muster. While Lon Chaney’s freaky revenge thrillers were certainly a major influence on the horror cycle of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein et al), this macabre caper provided a lot of the inspiration too. The sepulchral sets were designed by Englishman Charles D. Hall, who had come to the States to work for Chaplin and would go on to create the creaky castles for most of the later Universal Studios monster movies.

It’s very much an international affair, reminding us how Hollywood has always sucked into its orbit the top filmmaking and acting talent of the world: Irishman Creighton Hale is the timorous hero, the kind of role he would reprise several times: he’s one of the Hippodrome’s favourite actors, having previously been screened in Annie Laurie and last year’s hit Seven Footprints to Satan. Hale had played staunch leading man types in movie serials of the teens (e.g. The Exploits of Elaine) before donning Harold Lloyd specs here to embody a comic milquetoast. The glamorous Laura La Plante, former bathing beauty, a big star of the silent and early talkie era, is top-billed, but it’s the grotesque supporting players who really bring out the goose-pimply fun…

The cadaverous Tully Marshall, resembling a kind of silly-putty skeleton, makes a lugubrious lawyer; Martha Mattox as the housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant, manages to make any shot she appears in startling, then unsettling; Flora Finch flutters as daffy Aunt Susan, and even the small role of a passing milkman becomes an exercise in grotesquerie, thanks to the chinless Joe Murphy, who was best-known for embodying yokel Andy Gump, a newspaper cartoon character.

And that’s what this is, in many ways, a live-action cartoon, with animated intertitles and a painted mansion to add to the funny-pages feel. Everything, from the actors to the sets to the exciting, swooping camerawork is designed to add to a heightened sense of macabre hilarity: Leni proves that German expressionism isn’t just there for the nasty things in life, it can be good for a laugh, too.