Archive for Alexander Korda

Waiting for the Big One

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by dcairns

I picked up a copy of British Film Editors by Roy Perkins & Martin Stollery. Very good! Specially-conducted interviews with lots of big names — Jim Clark, Antony Gibbs, Tony Lawson, Mick Audsley — but also a great gathering of archive material to assemble a history of the craft of editing in the UK. This doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but the smattering provided is probably more thorough than any existing source. Here’s a good bit from future director Charles Crichton on his early days working with Korda ~

“When I became one of the editors on Things to Come [William Cameron Menzies, 1936], I showed him a rough cut of a sequence showing London under attack from the air (this was before the war). The sequence was full of violence, gunfire, bombs, people running for their lives…Alex said, ‘Charlie, you have made a bloody mess of this. It should be that everyone is standing there worried, waiting because they know something is going to happen, and you haven’t put that in the cut at all.’ And I said, ‘But the director didn’t shoot such a scene. So he said, ‘You are a bloody fool, Charlie! You take the bits before he has said ‘Action!’ and you take the bits after he has said ‘Cut!’ and you put them together and you make a marvellous sequence. What’s wrong with you?’ … I was beginning to learn that the script is not the Bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed, word for word, to the very last detail.”

Check out the film — though there are some atmospheric close-ups which I think must have been taken after Korda got the idea to generate suspense with waiting, there are several wide shots of people standing about in the big London set which look like they have indeed been pinched from the beginning or end of the take. I’ve occasionally used these little bits of non-acting myself, when stuck for footage, so I know it goes on.

Here’s another example of ingenuity and make-do, involving material that was recorded without the intention of it actually being used in the finished film. In the pre-war days, the film’s editor was often responsible for the soundtrack also. Esteemed cutter Reginald Beck faced a problem editing Carol Reed’s THE STARS LOOK DOWN in 1939 ~

“We practically ran out of money, and I hadn’t finished editing. There was a scene of a mining disaster and the sound crew had not shot me any effects. In the film there is seen some rushing water, flooding the mine, with tunnels collapsing, and pit props smashing, everything. And I had to devise sound effects for all that lot. For the pit-props smashing I went through all the takes and used the clapper-board modulation at the start of every take, manipulating several together to create the sound of rending wood.”

We must all look at this film ASAP! I bet it works — you can cut sounds together (literally splicing and gluing them, in those days) to create new sounds, and a movie’s worth of clapperboards would give you a whole range of sharp, wooden SNAP sounds, the volume and pitch depending on distance from the mic and acoustics of the set or location. SNAPsnapSNAPsnapsnapSNAP! I can imagine it. I can also imagine it being a little funny now we know how it was done.

Anything’s Better Than This

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2015 by dcairns

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With trepidation I pressed Play on BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE (1948), about which I had heard nothing but terrible things. You get Robert Krasker cinematography in Technicolor, and you get to see David Niven acting rings around everyone, the only actor who can make the hoaky lines sound like they’ve just popped into his head (it helps that, despite Scottish parentage, he doesn’t attempt an accent), but otherwise it’s a slog, with all the exciting stuff happening between scenes and then getting served up as dripping goujons of exposition.

Our late friend Lawrie worked on this, and asked Niven why one earth he was making such a terrible film. “Well, I can’t act, you see, so I feel I have to accept any offer that comes as I may get found out and it’ll be my last.” How very wrong he was — but we can be grateful in a way, since it kept him busy and gave us more of his work to enjoy.

Lawrie took Niven for his screen test, which he described as hilarious. Niven donned a kilt and did a handstand. “Can you see anything?”

(Ultimately, in the movie, they kept Niven in trousers.)

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By coincidence, my friend Alex reported watching Niven interviews on YouTube and the euphemism “anything” appeared again. In full raconteur mode, the star complained of the tight trousers he was forced to wear on WUTHERING HEIGHTS, designed by Omar Kiam, “a devout poof.” In Niven’s words, the problem with Kiam’s trousers was “there was never any room for anything.”

The lousy direction of BPC is credited to Anthony Kimmins and Alexander Korda, both of whom were capable of a lot better. Example: we meet Charles Snr. playing cards and explaining he’s too old to run a revolution in a damp climate. At a given point, an angle change reveals that Niven, the great white hope, is seated opposite. But the cut is handled so badly that it feels like a scene change. And the match on Niven throwing down a card should have been dead easy — it could have been a James Bond type introduction, with the card hitting the table in CU and a pan up to Niven. Tsk.

There’s one good bit that reminded me of the striking illusionism in Kimmins’ superior MINE OWN EXECUTIONER — the camera pans off a group of characters on a babbling studio brook onto a miniature heathery hillside — and if you look twice with a skeptical eye, you realise even the people on the hillside are tiny dolls set in dramatic poses. The main interest in the movie is how they’ve augmented their few, unpopulated scenic shots of actual Scotland, with matte paintings and miniatures and sets and cycloramas.

The matte paintings are awesome.

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Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

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“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

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4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.