Archive for Alexander Korda

Teary with Beery

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2010 by dcairns

PORT OF SEVEN SEAS (1938), like a lot of MGM “class” product, throws together a mismatched collection of megatalents with strong material and kind of hopes for the best. I slotted the DVD-R in, with Fiona’s approval, on account of the director being James Whale. As the film went on, Fiona mostly drifted off to tweet on Twitter, and I stayed for the Preston Sturges screenplay. But I could see why she didn’t stay with it: something just doesn’t work about this movie.

The source material, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of MARIUS, FANNY and CESAR, filmed in the early 30s by Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret and Pagnol himself, is in some ways an odd match for Sturges, with its salt-of-the-earth characters, but in other ways pretty sympatico — there’s a blend of raucous comedy and dewy-eyed sentiment which does have some common ground with the author of CHRISTMAS IN JULY and (especially) THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. And Sturges’s script, basically concentrating on the middle part of the story, is very funny in places, at least as I imagine it on the page.

The bruised codfish.

James Whale’s sense of humour was very distinctly his own, mining veins of gallows wit and camp long before they were fashionable or even widely recognized. It doesn’t have much to do with Sturges at all, or with Pagnol, and he seems to have treated the film as an assignment and invested little of himself in the movie. Central to his discouragement, it seems, was the casting of Wallace Beery as Cesar. A loud, brash, sentimental proletarian, Beery’s persona is just right for the loudmouthed, quick-tempered but good-natured Marseilles saloon-keeper… but unfortunately he was a silent movie star whose relationship with dialogue was always somewhat rudimentary. He can talk convincingly enough (the blubbery lips move, and intelligible noises emerge), but he doesn’t have a way with a line. And there are so many lines here…

“Now, now, it’s nothing to faint. I remember my cousin Bella on my father’s side — no, it was my mother’s side — she used to faint every day — sometimes twice a day! — in fact, she fainted so often we never knew whether she was conscious or not.”

(Sturges obviously liked this rhythm, because in CHRISTMAS IN JULY he repeats it: “I make mistakes every day, sometimes several times a day. I’ve got whole warehouses full of mistakes!”)

Strange trapezoid head of Morgan safely contained in derby.

One aches for William Demarest to step in from the wings, kick Beery in the pants, and steal his role. But that isn’t going to happen. Instead we have Frank THE WIZARD OF OZ Morgan to show how it should be done. Beery’s main co-star, he has form with Sturges material, having been excellent in THE GOOD FAIRY (“Did you see his eyes? Like angry marbles!”), and though he dithers and faffs comedically with his lines, they get well and truly delivered. Into the right slot.

“I had a friend like that once: his brain began to soften. Everything in there started to melt, and at the end, when he would shake his head to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ you could hear it, splashing around in there. It went, ‘Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.’ Oh! It was very gruesome!”

[Skeptical] “What an unusual malady.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Of course! Certainly I believe you! Because I had a friend, even more unusual. Instead of softening like your friend, my friend’s brain hardened. Yes, it began to evaporate, to dry up.”

“Really — you don’t say so?”

“Absolutely. Little by little it shrank to the size of a pea, a fried pea. So when he walked down the street, this little brain of his would bounce around in his skull and make a noise like a bay’s rattle.”

“Ugh — horrible!”

“Yes, especially when he walked on cobblestones.”

[Suddenly indignant] “I don’t believe a word of it! Monsieur Panisse, it grieves me to say so, but I think you’re a liar.”

“Of course I am, what about you?”

With Whale contenting himself with shooting coverage, we still have some really impressive soundstage docks, and Beery is pretty good at the necessary schmaltz — I usually prefer his bellowing to blubbering, but here the natural order is reversed since he makes such heavy weather of the talk (and Sturges’s actors would say how easy his lines were to handle, because they flowed). Maureen O’Sullivan makes a rather well-spoken young fishmonger, and John Beal as Marius doesn’t stand much of a chance since the early part of the story, which would establish him in a sympathetic light, has been lopped off.

All available sources suggest that the later Joshua Logan version of FANNY is an even bigger snore, so interested parties are referred to the French originals, starring Raimu as CESAR, Orane Demazis as FANNY and Pierre Fresnais as MARIUS, which constitute quite a moving epic, part comedy and part soap.

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Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2008 by dcairns

From the Korda production ELEPHANT BOY.

Directed by Robert Flaherty, then RE-directed by Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan, after Flaherty’s more purist documentary style was rejected as uncommercial (a similar problem had resulted in Flaherty’s removal from WHITE SHADOWS ON THE SOUTH SEAS, where he was replaced by “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke. How did Hollywood turn the dry documentary into boffo B.O.? “Boys, I’ve an idea — let’s fill the screen with tits!”). Much of E-BOY’s elephant stampede footage was staged in England with circus animals (it looks phoney as heck). Flaherty was certainly not above staging things (it was normal practice in ’30s documentary) but he had his own code of standards that would never have permitted geographic fraudulence of this kind.

Editor Charles Crichton, later director of comedies like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and A FISH CALLED WANDA, used to tell a story about the production that may well be untrue (one hopes it is). When Flaherty went out to India, he telegrammed the studio:

ARRIVED INDIA FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT AND BOY

A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.

FOUND BOY FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT

Two more weeks, then:

FOUND ELEPHANT FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY

Then, the next day:

ELEPHANT SAT ON BOY FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY WE FIND NEW BOY

As I say, hopefully a humorous anecdote rather than a real-life tragedy. Now to Sabu!

What’s he doing in the clip? I don’t know, but it’s clearly VERY GREAT. While his lines emerge very much as if imperfectly memorized, his enthusiasm in delivering them is so overwhelming that the whole thing is just a delight. I challenge you not to grin. In addition, his eyeline is all over the place, as if he’s looking from one crewmember to the other, or as if they wanted to give the impression he’s looking around the cinema at first one patron, then another. Most of the time he’s looking straight ahead at the circle seats, the cheap seats, rather than down at the front rows, which seems appropriate for a working class lad. He’s talking to the elephant boys of England.

It’s quite amazing to me that there was an Indian juvenile star in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. There hasn’t been one since. “Invented” for this one film (he had been working in the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore), Sabu was so obviously captivating that producers didn’t hesitate to come up with new projects he could appear in. You might think he would be considered “hard to cast”, but projects like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and BLACK NARCISSUS, while not constructed around him, were able to make use of his vigour, beauty, and unique acting style.

My late friend Lawrie Knight worked on BLACK NARCISSUS as an A.D. He reported that the young star had a disconcerting habit of welcoming messengers into his dressing room while he was on the toilet. I don’t think this is Indian S.O.P., so maybe it was movie star contempt for underlings, or some kind of exhibitionism. John Ford used to do the same thing with journalists (“Send him in — I can deal with two shits at the same time,”), a scene recreated in CATCH 22 with an enthroned Martin Balsam greeting padre Anthony Perkins with a glimpse of Hades. Funny scene. Ford was also fond of greeting guests naked, having emerged from the shower, so I do suspect a bit of exhibitionism there, especially what with Maureen O’Hara’s revelations about Ford’s same-sex-loving side.

Sabu again! Lawrie also said that Sabu was very interested in co-star Jean Simmons, but that the young starlet’s mother discouraged any co-mingling. This seems less like simple motherly protection than prejudice, since Lawrie was able to wash the brown body makeup off Jean in the bath every evening, and THAT was fine. Sabu contented himself with Jean’s stand-in, according to Lawrie (Billy Wilder always suggested sleeping with stand-ins rather than movie stars — all the benefits, none of the stress), and soon had her pregnant.

Now, I don’t know for a fact this is true, but all of Lawrie’s stories that I’ve been able to check out, have checked out. And at the time of his tragically early death, aged 39, Sabu had been plagued by paternity suits, so either Lawrie was being completely factual, or he incorporated the news stories into his anecdote. But as I say, I’ve never found any of Lawrie’s stories to be inaccurate, unless they were stories told to him by somebody else (like the one about Jayne Mansfield’s head rolling down the street).

Sabu’s Hollywood career took in the outrageous COBRA WOMAN: highly recommended B-movie madness with Maria Montez as twins (one Good! One evil!), Lon Chaney Jnr and an aging chimp. See it! While this material lacks the class and budgetary level of his Korda productions in Britain, Sabu was able to spin out his career as a juvenile lead far beyond his actual puberty, thanks to his diminutive height and natural exuberance.

I’ve heard that Sabu’s youthful looks faded with his career, but in the latest footage I’ve seen of him, an appearance on somebody’s This Is Your Life, he’s still a very handsome guy, although now obviously no longer a boy. Strange that western cinema could find roles for a beautiful Indian boy, but not a beautiful Indian man…

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD even inspired a SABU ACTION FIGURE, of sorts. I found it at www.dollreference.com.

*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.

“Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2008 by dcairns

Our Losey Cluesies were from THE GO-BETWEEN.

Me Julie

(For some reason, Optimum Releasing’s DVD is in the old “postage-stamp ratio”. Not what *I* call Optimum.)

After wallowing a bit in some of Losey’s lesser works, it felt good to plunge into one of his most celebrated. THE GO-BETWEEN, his 1971 Palme D’Or winner, scripted by Harold Pinter, starring young Dominic Guard as a boy charged with delivering elicit messages from Julie Christie to her lover Alan Bates, under the nose of her mother, Margaret Leighton, and fiancé, Edward Fox.

I’m told that L.P. Hartley’s novel is even finer than Losey’s film, and has nothing to do with flash-forwards. Losey and Pinter’s contemporary scenes, with Michael Redgrave (returning to the Losey camp after TIME WITHOUT PITY) playing the protagonist as an older man, have always been a bit controversial. I liked the way they mixed things up, fracturing the narrative and injecting an otherness into the film whenever there’s a risk of Merchant-Ivoryitis setting in, but maybe they don’t pay off strongly enough. Some object to the spectacle of Julie Christie slathered in old age makeup like David Bowie in THE HUNGER, with an older woman’s voice (sounds like Leighton again) dubbed in. I thought that was GREAT. I can’t explain why, exactly, but I suppose the bizarreness of it worked for me. Losey hated naturalism, which seems the default mode for British period cinema (if we define naturalism as style-less, life-less and flat, which seems to be what’s generally aimed for) and an odd sight like Julie C with latex all over her boat is as good a way as any of rupturing that “aesthetic”.

Old Boiler

(Alexander Korda initially optioned the novel, but later the author discovered that Korda “never intended to make a film of the book … I was so annoyed when I discovered this that I put a curse on him, and he died, almost the next morning.” I love that “almost”. There is much talk of magical cursing in the movie, also.)

Curse of the Demon

But the film is pretty cinematically exciting even without that. The development of the story is slow but assured, and has the authentic feel of endless childhood summers. Stuff is happening but our hero isn’t aware of its significance, and sometimes neither are we, so there’s a sense of drifting aimlessly like a Pooh-stick along the story’s banks, occasionally grazing a knee on a sharp surface. All his helped hugely by Gerry Fisher’s sun-drenched photography and a marvellous score by Michel Legrand. Pinter says the book made him cry numerous times, and the music made me feel like I was going to, constantly. But being a Scotsman, I kept it in.

There’s a very enjoyable weirdness to the talk in this film, which goes well beyond Pinter’s usual elliptical doubletalk. The younger actors are quite strange, and the manners and customs of these Norfolk gentry are alien to modern viewers (I’ve never seen a film set in the relatively recent past that’s so clipped and foreign in its characters’ manners). Michael Gough is great value, sly and enigmatic (how come he never got typecast in all those horror movies he did, unlike Cushing and Lee and, to some extent, Pleasence?) and Leighton is frighteningly good. You don’t initially understand why an actress is playing the role at all, she has so little to do, but the part builds, from the odd highly significant glance, to a central role in the climax of the story. How different it might have been if Deborah Kerr had agreed to do it. I think Leighton is probably more worrying that Debs would have been.

After the Fox

Thrillingly, we also get the extraterrestrial Edward Fox, who gives my favourite performance in this film (though his best work is in THE CAT AND THE CANARY, where he invents an entirely new species of acting). We’re never certain how much he knows or suspects about what’s going on, or quite how he feels about it. There are plenty of hints of some kind of knowledge, but also the possibility that they’re imagined by the boy.

Rather than being a stiff piece of heritage cinema, THE GO-BETWEEN is an authentic “art film”, wrenched out of the British cinema with the greatest of difficulty. American finance had deserted the UK at the end of the ’60s, and Losey was fighting all sorts of entrenched attitudes. There were objections to the non-chronological structure from his editor and producers, objections to the score (too loud, insufficiently “period”) and insistence on casting stars regardless of whether they were appropriate, all of which Losey was able to work around to get the results he wanted. If his behaviour was often abrasive, I find that understandable. I’m just glad he was able to do what he did.

THE GO-BETWEEN got made, after many delays, in part thanks to the support of Bryan Forbes, who was in charge of production at ABC, the biggest film distributor in Britain. Forbes’ tenure is often written off as a disaster, but he commissioned THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and this, so I’m inclined to hand him some credit. He was certainly more of a risk-taker than John Davis, and is a fine film-maker himself. Losey complained that British cinema was full of people who didn’t care about films, but Forbes certainly wasn’t one of them.

Red, grave

Only fair to acknowledge that 90% of my Losey facts and figures come from David Caute’s fine biography Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life.