Archive for Adolph Menjou

The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.

“…lead to the grave.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Years ago, when I discovered Fiona hadn’t seen PATHS OF GLORY and we watched it together, she put into words something I had felt about the film but not articulated — “It’s not just a war film, it’s about really big things — LIFE and DEATH!” Indeed, for us the film really kicked into its strongest phase after the three soldiers have been sentenced to death (off-camera, in a bold elision) and have to face their mortality (calling to mind Woody Allen’s speech from LOVE AND DEATH: “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer.”)

Like Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel, we have three choices about facing death — we can weep and pray, we can put on a brave face, or we can be unconscious when it happens. And ultimately it could be said to make little difference. “Pull yourself together — is this how you want to be remembered?” asks Bert Freed. “I don’t want to die,” replies Meeker, reasonably.

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I just ran the movie for students ahead of a visiting lecture by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer — one remarked that it was sweet to see Turkel being so nice, since in his most famous roles, THE SHINING and BLADE RUNNER, he’s kind of sepulchral and sinister. True, he does punch a priest in the face, but that’s not too unsympathetic by this film’s lights, and to be fair the priest was a bit annoying. By casting Emile Meyer, usually a heavy, with his pugilistic, clapped-in face, Kubrick somehow mitigates the anti-clerical brutality — you couldn’t slug the padre from MASH without losing audience respect, but somehow Meyer is fair game. When Meyer protests that he wants “to help you, with all my power!” Turkel responds, “You HAVE no power!” which is true, as far as the immediate problem goes. It’s the best bit of defrocking dialogue outside of  THE GREEN ROOM, where Truffaut yells that what the bereaved want from the church is the immediate resurrection of their loved ones, and anything less is an unforgivable tease. Unreasonable, you might say, but not when you take into account the authority these dudes claim to represent.

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Despite starring Chin Cleft himself (introduced shirtless, as was his wont), and being produced by his company, the film is really an ensemble piece (a fact emphasised even further by the tacked-on conclusion, in which Kirk is merely a passive witness), and everybody is really good. James Mason, impressed enought to take on LOLITA, nevertheless felt that the American accents let it down, which is objectively silly, but I guess the custom for using Brit to represent the entire non-American world was strongly established. Having gone for Yanks, Kubrick pushes it pretty far, with Meyer’s Bowery bum whine (wait, he was from Louisiana?) and Jerry Hausner’s bold reading of “What is life widout a liddle divoijshen?” and, of course, Timothy Carey.

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Listening to the film’s producer, James B. Harris, in Lyon, my NATAN co-director Paul Duane picked up lots of great stuff about Carey faking his own kidnapping on location and other typical crazy shit. John Baxter cites the story of someone questioning Kubes why he kept hiring Carey. “He can’t act!” Kubrick replied that he wanted either the best actor in the world, or a brilliant type. (Exemplified by DR STRANGELOVE — when Peter Sellers dropped out of the role of Major Kong, the director went straight for Dan Blocker and then Slim Pickens, genuine examples of what Sellers was to have imitated.) And it’s true — Carey carries his own reality with him, a beat-up beatnik doziness that anchors him in every scene. If he can’t quite do everything the script calls for, and has a slight tendency to strike poses (hilarious vanity in one with his lizard-lidded zombie face), his essential Timothy-Carey-ness keeps him credible, like the way a small child, or a very old person, or a dog is always believable on-screen even if they can’t act.

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Who else? Wayne Morris, a real-life WWII hero, is great as the drunken coward Roget (the script, partly written by alcoholic Jim Thompson, tends to equate boozing with vice, until the third act when everybody swears by it). My late friend Lawrie said used to drink with him– I can’t work out when this occurred, since Morris doesn’t seem to have had a British career. And the bad guys — Adolphe Menjou, whose rapid-fire delivery makes him the worst casualty of the boxy sound recording in vast halls — George MacReady, whose psychotic villainy keeps rising to new levels of outrageous hypocrisy, and that’s his arc — Richard Anderson, who probably oversells his sliminess early on and his doubt later — and Peter Capell, who plays the presiding judge at the court martial, and scores by buttering the most prejudiced and insanely unjust comments with a veneer of gentle, paternal reasonableness.

The full quote is “The paths of glory lead to the grave,” hence all those tracking and trucking shots — at the execution, SK dollies over gravel towards the posts the men are to be bound to, and the POV shots heading forwards seem to represent the rush towards Death — three wooden poles marking the end of everything.

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For the first time I really thought about what the film would have been like without the musical number from the future Mrs Kubrick at the end. Ending on Kirk’s rugged face as he says, “Because you don’t know the answer to that, I pity you,” would be very strong indeed — the only note of grace being supplied by the lighting, which makes of him a lambent gargoyle-saint. What follows is a brilliantly judged attempt to soften the conclusion without softening the film, beginning with a sequence which actually makes us dislike the French troops we’ve been rooting for all along, developing into the musical montage of faces, magnificently lit again — I wonder how Kubrick got on with his German cinematographer, Georg Krause, who had been active all through the Nazi era? They do great work together. Most of the previous imagery has been figures in landscapes or interiors, Kirk’s big CU at the end of the “real film” starts this cascade of portraits. The best thing about it is it does almost nothing — it doesn’t alleviate the sense of injustice, it almost universalizes it. The final shot of Kirk leaving is pretty bleak and ugly — but isn’t even the last shot, since the end creds are a bunch more portraits.

Obviously PATHS OF GLORY is an emotional film, but it defies WWI movie convention by stirring up our sense of moral outrage rather than trying to break our hearts with the pity of it. It gives the lie to the cliché of Kubrick the emotionless. My friend B. Mite strongly argued that Kubrick was interested in “the emotions that don’t have names” — 2001 stirs up a kind of awe and terror that’s closer to the romantic poets’ response to nature than to anything in Spielberg. It’s cold in a tactile sense — all that black space and ll those white surfaces — but nobody, surely, could watch it without emotion. Even Pauline Kael felt claustrophobic.

The movie has been used by scientists testing the physiological effects of film — it has been shown to make people physically angry. Script guru Phil Parker once pointed out that injustice is a great plot engine, because it seizes and inflames everyone. As the line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS goes, “When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair,’ the child can be believed.”

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 2, 2014 by dcairns

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After advertising the books of Mr Robinson and Mr Clipson, I thought it was time to let you know about some fabulous Shadowplay products you can buy!

SHADOWPLAY RECORDS PRESENTS

Hans Zimmer Stabs Irving Berlin. World-renowned composer Hans Zimmer is renowned the world over all over the world for his great accomplishment in transforming the symphony orchestra into a percussion instrument. No longer need different instruments play different notes, as thanks to innovative orchestration techniques, Zimmer can play a 100-piece orchestra exactly as if it were a synthesizer keyboard in the hands of an angry man with fat, stumpy fingers. Now Zimmer gives the world (where he is renowned) his own beautiful interpretations of the hits of Irving Berlin. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard White Christmas in dramatic stab form, and once you have heard it, it will be too late to start.

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SHADOWPLAY PUBLISHING PRESENTS

Lev Kuleshov’s Great Mysteries of the World — Solved! employs Russian montage to explain some of mankind’s most enduring enigmas.  In one fell swoop, Comrade Kuleshov solves the Kennedy assassination and the mystery of bigfoot by editing together the Patterson Footage and the Zapruder Film. The instant after the fatal shot slays John Fitzgerald Kennedy, we cut to a shadowy, shaggy figure striding away into the nearby woods, past a grassy knoll, with obviously feigned insouciance. The implication is inescapable: JFK was assassinated by a Sasquatch (possibly in the pay of Cubans), who has been hiding ever since, like those Japanese soldiers who didn’t know the war was over, waiting for a subpoena from Jim Garrison.

Elsewhere, Kuleshov will explain the explosion of the Hindenburg with the winning goal of the 1966 World Cup.

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SHADOWPLAY TOYS PRESENTS

The Mathieu Amalric Action Figure. This innovative, non-posable doll features Amalric in his celebrated role as Vogue editor Jean-Do in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. The character is completely immobile except for one eyelid, which will blink when you tilt him. For the first time, a toy is manufactured which works without any exertion from the child’s imagination. The doll behaves exactly the same when it’s not being played with as when it is: it does nothing.

Coming soon: our WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S inaction figure. Doesn’t even blink!

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SHADOWPLAY BROADCASTING PRESENTS

It’s The Adolph Menjou Show! Starring an animated version of this frightening photograph of the infant Adolph Menjou. Topical comedy and relaxed chat with photographs of other deceased guests when they were children. All with that patented mini-Menjou charm and suavity!

SHADOWPLAY CLOTHING PRESENTS

A brilliant line of sexy cinematic outfits. And unisex! Our erotic experts have selected the most powerfully sexual garments from screen history, combining them in irresistible ensembles. Imagine Michael Douglas’s casual knitwear from BASIC INSTINCT, with Ursula Andress’s yellow bikini bottoms and matching belt with dagger from DR NO, Jane Fonda’s torn tights from BARBARELLA, and Sean Connery’s thigh boots and bandoliers from ZARDOZ. All topped off with Charlotte Rampling’s Nazi hat from THE NIGHT PORTER. A devastating look for a man or a lady.

A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]