Archive for Alexander Mackendrick

This one is a doozy

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on September 28, 2018 by dcairns

Spent all day yestersday watching the Brett Kavanaugh sideshow, so my head isn’t exactly buzzing with film thoughts just now. Alexander Mackendrick taught a whole class based on the live editing of the Watergate hearings, but I don’t have anything like that.

On Twitter, Laura Ingraham managed to wrench her arm down from a Nazi salute long enough to type that this was “a performance, not a legal seminar.” “Performance,” is an interesting word in this context. My feeling, or one of them (along with nausea, horror, pity, anger) was that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was natural, real, not performing, interacting in a polite and pleasant manner with her questioners (none of whom were actual Republican committee members). Judge Brett Kavanaugh WAS giving a performance, one that certainly contained real emotional responses, but ones that weren’t necessarily what they appeared to be.

Students of acting might study the two Q&As, but I would think Kavanaugh’s weird, shouty, face-pulling performance would be most useful in a “what not to do” context. I kept asking myself if I were an innocent falsely accused, how would I appear? Not like this, I like to think, but who can really say? (I think he’s guilty, obviously, but the thought experiment seemed worthwhile.) Accused of anything, we all tend to feel a little guilty, we all try to ACT like an innocent person, which of course can make our denials less convincing. We might reach for spurious arguments, and I suppose we might even misstate the case against us, or lie about details, in a misguided attempt to cast off suspicion. Kavanaugh definitely did all of the above. It COULD be the response of an innocent but badly flustered man. But then I look at Ford, and I believe her.

The man was clearly on the verge of a complete meltdown, but other than that it was hard to make out what his emotions SIGNIFIED. I think the fury that he led off with was, to some extent, excuse the expression, trumped up. Performative. He’d been told he needed to show defiance and righteous anger so he attempted to produce them by yelling and by stressing every single word in a demented forty-five minute tirade. I think he WAS angry but was straining to SHOW it, to channel the emotion the way an actor might use stage fright or first night nerves and transmute it into the emotion required for the scene. I think, personally, the anger came from an outraged sense of entitlement: how DARE anyone question his right to be SCOTUS (what a horrible acronym. Uglier than POTUS, even.)Marlon Brando said something to the effect that an actor might summon up a genuine emotion but it might still not be suitable if it were expressed in an ugly way. Well, we know what he means now. Kavanaugh’s sniffing, tongue-lolling performance was extremely grotesque. People under strain often are. But what was the tongue literally in the cheek about? Or lolling around his underlip? Dry mouth? The bottled water was right there. Even Olivier at his most salacious would have shied away from Kavanaugh’s attempts to lick the entire underside of his face. It was often accompanied by his voice cracking and him tearing up a little, or sounding like it (no actual tears), and this always happened when he talked about his family. But was this sorrow for his family, self-pity about being humiliated in front of his family, or shame about being caught and exposed? Or all three? The extreme WEIRDNESS of the particular manifestation made me guess at some conflicted feelings or cognitive dissonance — perhaps from guilt.

There was at times a resemblance to the hunchbacked executioner in BLAZING SADDLES (can’t uncover who the actor is*), who seems to be imitating Charles Laughton a bit. Same sense that his tongue is a possessed, writhing intruder worming around trying to escape. Like some tiny voice at the far back of his head were trying to seize control of the vocal equipment, vainly striving to resuscitate a vestigial, long-atrophied relationship between tongue and truth, and blubber a desperate confession.

*Apparently it’s Robert Ridgely, as “Boris.” Thanks to Jez Connolly for the tip-off.

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Newshounds

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2017 by dcairns

“Whatever made Eddie Buzzell think he could direct?” mused Groucho Marx, a thought captured by the eager pen of Steve Stoliar in his essential memoir Raised Eyebrows. Like it had been bothering Groucho for thirty-plus years since making AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST and he finally had to give voice to it.

I’ve been more inclined to give Mr. Buzzell a pass — he did some OK films with some nice shots in them. But looking at the original LIBELED LADY, which Buzzell remade as EASY TO WED, does make me feel a bit less charitable. Neither film is great, both have enjoyable moments, but Buzzell’s tends to miss the joke a lot of the time.

(You can expect a lot of late-thirties / forties stuff for a while as James Harvey’s book Romantic Comedy causes me to look up films that have passed me by.)

Sleeves by Dolly Tree.

Of course, Jack Conway doesn’t have a huge directorial reputation either, but he knew his business, I reckon. And he has the unbeatable William Powell and Myrna Loy to work with instead of Esther Williams and Van Johnson, and Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in place of Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn. And best of all, he doesn’t have Ben Blue anywhere his version. Hate is a very tiring emotion, so somebody please name a film in which Ben Blue wasn’t a repulsive, unfunny bore so I can let go of this hate for him which is eating my soul.

“I didn’t think Spencer Tracy could do this kind of fast-talking newspaper thing,” said Fiona early on.

“Well, he can talk fast. I don’t know how funny he’s going to be,” I pondered.

“Oh he’s not FUNNY,” clarified Fiona.

But he’s not too bad. Outclassed by Wm. Powell, of course.

“I*am* too funny!”

Buzzell got the help of Buster Keaton for his main bit of visual comedy in EASY TO WED, as he had done for GO WEST. Conway and Powell work it out alone, and their gags aren’t as smart but Powell’s playing is a joy. The main fun in this, though, apart from Dolly Tree’s outlandish costumes (she mainly runs amuck on Harlow) is Loy, introduced with her back to the camera but instantly recognizable, and instantly FUN. Esther Williams could certainly be fun, but being a swimmer rather than an actress, she wasn’t as resourceful at finding the fun.

On paper, everyone in this story is kind of awful. Spencer Tracy stands Harlow up at the altar then makes her marry Powell for business purposes. Powell is trying to frame Loy on an adultery rap to kill off her libel suit against his newspaper. Loy ought to be sympathetic, but she and dad Walter Connolly (Cecil Kellaway in the remake) are terribly rude to Powell, BEFORE they know what a rat he is.

As you’ve never seen them before

What we have is the offspring of the hardboiled newspaper comedy and the screwball — unlike in THE FRONT PAGE and its offspring, nothing is really at stake here (the wellbeing of a muckraking newspaper doesn’t count) but the abrasiveness owes more to Hecht & McCarthy’s acerbic spirit than to the usual romantic comedy. In fact, Maurine Dallas Watkins, one of the writers, wrote CHICAGO — she has a bigger claim to inventing the newspaper comedy than anyone else. As the movie gets away from the newsroom and into the haunts of the wealthy, it does introduce a little more sweetness, but as the rich folks have been introduced as pretty tough, deceitful and boorish, we carry a lot of that sour feeling with us.

In both versions, the jilted bride is harshly treated and seems the most blameless figure. There are the usual dumb blonde jokes — when Powell marries Loy while still married to Harlow, her keen legal mind pounces: “That’s arson!” But her being dumb or common doesn’t justify any of the loutish treatment she gets from Tracy and Powell. It’s a colossal relief when Myrna is nice to her (as Harvey points out, Loy is always sympathetic to other women, always projects a sense of companionship rather than judgement). Sympathy may be the enemy of drama, as Alexander Mackendrick warned, but if you build a drama without any bonds of sympathy between the characters… you’re David Mamet.

Loy – instantly recognizable ESPECIALLY when incognito.

What I’m saying is that this is a rare case where I disagree with James Harvey, who likes this film more than we did. But the good news is, the original CHICAGO is playing at Bo’ness. THAT one I like!

100% Talking

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on January 11, 2017 by dcairns

SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ! Yes, it’s time to continue our audiophonic journey through the surviving sound discs of John Cromwell and A. Edward Sutherland’s CLOSE HARMONY. Last we heard, Charles “Buddy” Rogers had failed to land a contract at the Babylon Club.

Now read on…

close_harmony-1

The latest song is Buddy’s competing act, which allows the film to bring in someone a bit more musical. I mean, Buddy’s OK and everything… but it is kind of tragic to watch him simpering through It’s Only a Paper Moon in TAKE A CHANCE, when the cast includes Cliff Edwards who could really put it over beautifully.

Back to the “plot” — applause, rhubarb, and non-sequiturs smother the soundtrack for twenty seconds after the song, but then order is restored and one of the singers becomes identifiable, through dialogue, as Jack Oakie, although much of what he says is a touch hard to make out. I think he’s talking to Nancy Carroll, and they seem to be getting on swell. Someone else says, apropos of something or other, “Their notes are high but their thoughts – are – LOW!”

Nancy invites Jack and friends to some kind of party. Then he and his pals do a bit of actual close harmony, which slowly fades away, perhaps suggesting that they’re leaving at last, and then Buddy chimes in, reflecting morosely that with Oakie and friends so popular with the crowd, his chances of landing another gig are diminished. Various other career possibilities have been mentioned — Buddy started the film with the thought that his band would break into vaudeville (a little late in the day) but the budget is too limited, seemingly, or the running time too short, for these possibilities to be explored, so all Buddy can do is mope about backstage in a joint he doesn’t work at anymore.

Right away Buddy starts feeling jealous of Oakie, and declines to attend Nancy’s party (so he can stew and feel MORE jealous, a smart plan). But then Nancy says she’ll call the party off, just for him, which seems typical of the plot so far: a predictable but potentially compelling dramatic situation is immediately by an act of niceness. “Beware of sympathy,” wrote Sandy Mackendrick, “Sympathy is the enemy of drama.”

close-harmony-nancy-carroll-buddy-rogers

Inaudible discussion between Nancy Allen and her fifty-foot-tall black maid. I *think* it goes something like “A regular Damon and Pythias,” “Yeah, they might be Oddfellahs too, but that triumph in valet’s room,” (or possibly “ballet school”) “tole me, that every now ‘n’ then they falls out, about some woman. Mm-hmm!” maybe the narrative will take an interesting turn after all, into Dadaism.

Now it turns out Nancy IS going out with the comedian harmonists, which makes Buddy cross, a welcome development but one that could have been accomplished two scenes ago, losing nothing but some indecipherable badinage.

But no! From sweet nothings cooed by the alluring Jack Oakie at the party, we deduce that Nancy Carroll is playing the femme fatale (!), accepting simultaneous dates with each of the incoming band, thereby to bust up their act by making them “falls out over some woman.” Thus Buddy will be able to get his job back while they’re all murdering each other. This seems incredibly low-down and dishonourable, but at least it’s a narrative development…

To be continued…