Archive for 55 Days at Peking

My Two Centurions

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2021 by dcairns

There didn’t seem to be any reason for it to happen, but while discussing 55 DAYS AT PEKING with Shadowplayer Randall William Cook yesterday, I flashed on the quite unrelated idea that George Stevens should have cast his old chums Laurel & Hardy in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

After all, everyone else was in it. The boys had to have felt left out. And they wouldn’t have been any more absurdly distracting than John Wayne.

We started imagining dialogue: “Well, Stanlius, this is another great story you’ve gotten me into.”

Randy topped that: “Truly, this man was the son of God.” “He certainly was.”

I imagined Ollie stepping on a nail. Randy supplied the line: “OOOH HOO HOOO!”

Max Von Sydow looks down compassionately.

Then I realized that Stevens would never have cast Stan and Max in the same film owing to the danger of audience confusion.

It was only this morning that I realized that Ollie died in 1957 and TGSET was made in 1965. But anything’s possible if you have imagination. Use out-takes from THE BOHEMIAN GIRL? The costumes are close enough. I mean, if the audience is bothered by the sudden switch to academy ratio and black and white and the appearance of a dead comedian in the wrong clothes, I think it’s fair to say you’ve already lost them.

(In fairness to Stevens, he DID cast Ed Wynn in a dramatic role, and the guy’s good, too. I kind of like TGSET as an experimental film: the tableau style is really radical. It’s kind of boring to watch, but so are a lot of experimental films if you’re looking for the wrong things in them.)

Brains Vs Bronco

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by dcairns

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“I’ve got a strong back and a weak mind,” says Robert Mitchum near the start of Nick Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN. Later, asked “You a thinking man?” he replies “I can get out of the rain, that’s about it,” thereby establishing his smarts — listeners who focus on what he says rather than how he says it will derive a different impression, but we know.

Rumours of the film’s scriptlessness appear to be exaggerated (see Bernard Eisenschitz’s excellent Ray bio for backstory) but they did start with an unfinished scenario and Mitchum did contribute dialogue of his own. I’d love to think these lines are his.

Elsewhere, Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part gets all the funny lines. Despite her dislike of westerns and her deep suspicion of this “rodeo film,” our friend Nicola really enjoyed him.

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The objection she raised to the greater part of the film had to do with the romantic triangle between Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, which seems at first unfairly weighted — overwhelmingly so — in favour of Mitchum. But Kennedy is married to Wayward Hayward, so the Hays Code determines that Mitch must be relegate to the role of Romantic Rival Who Tests and Ultimately Strengthens the Bonds of Marriage. Which is fine in narrative terms, but not something we actually root for because Mitch is lovable, melancholic and mucho manly, and Kennedy is basically a weasel — good actor, and he applies all of his weaselly equipment to the role, having a particularly good time with the stuff where his character, drunk on his success as rodeo star (and also drunk on drink) behaves like an asshole.

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He also has an appalling jacket, the broadest checks I’ve ever seen on a living human being. It’s like he was standing by the window when they dropped the atom bomb.

So the film’s happy ending isn’t really happy, and indeed it’s played for all the lack of conviction you could ever wish for, in the time-honoured fashion of Hollywood endings disliked by the director. But the scene before that works as tragedy — all that matters is the story of Mitchum the broken-down bronco buster, in love with a woman he can’t have, destroying himself over it, perhaps without even properly realizing why. His last scene is like the Beast’s farewell in Cocteau.

When Charlton Heston was contemplating doing 55 DAYS AT PEKING for Ray, he asked a buddy who had previous experience of the director.

“Good director. Good with actors. Good with the camera. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”

I always disliked the American concept of “loser” — which doesn’t really exist so much elsewhere in the world — which presupposes a character type, the person who will lose, as if it were a choice or an attribute rather than a combination of such things with the workings of chance (was Rockefeller a winner? He’s dead, isn’t he, and I’m alive, typing this in my Homer Simpson shorts). But in the case of Ray and various of his characters, losing is a choice, taken more or less consciously, by someone who rejects the terms of the contest or who wishes to be punished and thus redeemed.

A Wedding

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2008 by dcairns

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“I got married in Las Vegas once. To Gloria Grahame. I didn’t like her very much. I was infatuated with her, but I didn’t like her very much.

“There was something vindictive about me that made me stay at the crap tables while she was waiting out the last few days before her divorce became final. I wanted to be absolutely broke. I didn’t want this dame, who later proved to be as shrewd as she had begun to threaten to be, to have anything of mine. I didn’t want her to have any money at all. I was in the middle of making IN A LONELY PLACE. I lost a bundle.”

~ Nicholas Ray in I Was Interrupted, Nicholas Ray on Making Movies.

I wonder if Ray really lost all his money quite as deliberately as that.  If he did, it annoys me somewhat — I’d rather he gave the money to a good cause. He seems to have had a gambling addiction, of the kind that gets satisfaction from losing rather than winning.

Witnesses who saw Phil Silvers at the roulette wheel or craps table reported the same thing — his body would relax totally once he had lost his last dollar. Some kind of relief was achieved.

In his collected diaries, Charlton Heston reports asking a friend about Ray before embarking upon the colossal misadventure that was 55 DAYS AT PEKING. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the friend said something like, “Oh, he’s a good director. Good sense of story and good with actors. Great visual style. Intelligent. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”

In the U.S. the word “loser” seems to have a greater power than elsewhere, like it’s the worst thing you can call somebody. I think in Scotland we’d just shrug that one off. “Yeah, so what?” But Heston’s friend is using the word in a more precise and meaningful way — a loser is someone who sets out to lose.

When William Goldman and Rob Reiner were preparing to do MISERY, they talked to Warren Beatty about possibly playing the lead role. Beatty told them that if they kept the script like Stephen King’s novel, where the character has his foot chopped off by the crazed fan, “He’s a loser.” Having his bones broken was a way to make the injury recoverable, so that the ending is happier. The hero can win back what he lost.

This is kind of weird and repugnant to me. The idea that a person who loses a foot is a different KIND of person — a loser — from a person who just has his bones broken, then gets better, is a basically false view of the world, a place where shit happens.

Anyway, returning to Ray, whose loserishness I find appealing and attractive — that marriage to Gloria Grahame ended, and then she married Ray’s son. That didn’t last either. When I mention this in lectures, there’s a sort of shudder of revulsion, as if an act of incest were involved. But it’s not! O.K., marrying your ex’s offspring might be sort of unusual, but really, there’s nothing actually wrong with it per se. Tony Ray was probably closer to G.G.’s age than Nick, and if not, who cares?

G.G.’s last love affair is commemorated in a fine book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.