Archive for Alexander Mackendrick

Zero Tolerance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2019 by dcairns

A producer I was discussing the vicissitudes of the film business with once described it as “a process of continually deferred satisfaction” (credit where due: it was Eddie Dick) which seems about right.

Proof of this lies in THE PRODUCERS, where Mel Brooks can lay claim to having written an as-good-as-perfect script (OK, the first scene is like twenty pages long, but it’s GREAT) and assembled an as-good-as-perfect cast to play it. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are so good together, astonishing (it’s worth seeing RHINOCEROS, the Ionesco adaptation they’re in together too, although I would prefer Alexander Mackendrick to have made his version, with either Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov. He was going to matte rhinos into London landscapes.)

The first woman to wear lipstick in New York, and the man from whom Brooks stole the Elephant Man’s hairstyle.

BUT — to prove that there is no real satisfaction to be had for the labourer in film, Brooks was dissatisfied with Mostel’s performance throughout the shoot. Editor Ralph Rosenblum, in his excellent memoir, describes how Brooks filled the cutting room with explosive rage at Mostel’s intractability. He couldn’t let go of it and concentrate on the editing, his mind was still chewing over the trauma of the shoot, where he had tried to get Mostel to imbue Max Byalistock, conceived as a kind of humanoid id, with a form of sweetness and likability. If you see Nathan Lane in the role in the remake, you’ll see exactly what Brooks had in mind — Lane became his vision of the part.

The end credits list Zero merely as “Zero,” which seems affectionate — maybe Rosenblum is responsible, or maybe it’s phony showbiz affection, or a hidden gibe, or maybe Brooks loved Mostel as a man even if he hated — HATED! — the performance. A little mystery.

Yet I find Mostel ideal, and don’t find him remotely lacking in sweetness and likability, (“The most selfish man I ever met,” says Leo Bloom, affectionately.) But I agree with Mostel’s interpretation that the man is in essence villainous. Mostel played a lot of villains and finks in his pre-blacklist period, and being blacklisted probably didn’t make him any less explosive. But he’s always hugely human, therefore loveable.

(When The Producers stage musical was to open in London and Nathan Lane was unavailable, Brooks cast Jonathan Cake, who had played Mosley, then fired him for playing it too villanous. Nathan Lane somehow became available.)

Mel Brooks has had as long and rewarding a career as you could wish for, achieving wonderful things as director and producer and star and writer and lyricist. But by some cruel caprice of fate, he can’t see how magnificent the lead actor in his first film is.

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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.

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!