Archive for Barry Fitzgerald

Crosby Stille Nacht

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2017 by dcairns

Managed to avoid seeing GOING MY WAY all my life but finally weakened — needed to get more of a Leo McCarey overview. This one’s kind of a tipping point, the moment the conservative side of the Catholic Republican, called “Machiavellian” by John Huston, starts to emerge onscreen. The anti-Communism would follow soon after. (OK, there’s a religious streak in LOVE AFFAIR, but it’s at least subordinate to the story.)

GOING MY WAY is a rather unlikely success story, since it’s plotless and rambling and very long (by 1940s standards — it’s a good but shorter than THE LAST JEDI). But it beat DOUBLE INDEMNITY to the Oscar, one has to assume due to its perceived spiritual uplift (the Wilder Chandler noir has little of that). It’s a relentlessly nice film, whose chief strategy is to defuse dramatic potential rather than ignite it. McCarey, a comedy genius whose humour is subtly rooted in reality (while still embracing all available aspects of movieness) sets himself the tricky task of getting laughs out or priests, without being disrespectful, an almost impossible task, and stringing together a collection of incidents without a driving force of plot or any escalation of conflict (the priest hero always finds a way to de-escalate it). I think the shapelessness is deliberate: McCarey is trying to capture the randomness of his own life, which was interrupted by affairs, marital tiffs, drunken benders, car crashes, Oscar wins, falling down an elevator shaft… much more interesting stuff than we see in GOING MY WAY, now that I think of it. But the church spontaneously combusts in this one, and it truly is random.

Bing Crosby is a young priest. Barry Fitzgerald is an old priest. Some disagreement is allowed to simmer between them about methodology, but nothing ever comes of it. Also, the mortgage-holder is threatening to foreclose on the church, even though his son helpfully points out that this is a thing that never, ever happens. The Church is not a poor organisation as far as I’m aware, so this gesture towards dramatic tension doesn’t convince, but McCarey, having set it up, forgets about it for an hour at a time anyway, so there’s no point getting upset.

Crosby arrives and gets into scrapes. It seems priests get no respect: old women and atheists shout at them in the street. Already, Jean Renoir’s assessment that McCarey had the best understanding of people of anyone in Hollywood, is under threat: such a feeling for humanity can’t thrive with a toxic injection of propaganda. And yet it doesn’t roll over and die: you get unruly eruptions of real behaviour amid the schmaltz. And, near the end of the line for McCarey, you get MY SON JOHN, a film made by a madman, in which the human story is at odds with the political message, resulting not in the complexity McCarey was after but in crazy incoherence.

GMW isn’t quite as chaotic as that, or as it appears. Walking home one night from his boys’ club outing (our priest reforms all the local juvenile delinquents, even though their crimes are presented as merely amusing hi-jinks), Crosby passes the Metropolitan Opera and meets an old flame. And she’s playing Carmen, so we get an entire aria. The film is a kind of musical, or at any rate it’s touting a soundtrack album. It looks like the operatic career is solely an excuse for a bit of culture. But it does come back and play a plot role. McCarey inserts things at random, seems to forget about them, then returns to them and links them to other plot elements to solve problems or create fresh ones. It’s still not a very sophisticated story, but it has a little more design than at first appears. Then the church burns down for no reason. I guess a shot of a candle falling over or something would too forcibly suggest an Act of God, which would raise uncomfortable questions. (SUPERMAN III dialogue: “It was an act of God!” “In a church?”)

Sportswear imparts an uncomfortable Jimmy Savile look to Bing.

It needs mentioning that, in addition to discovering a soulfulness in Crosby, who is elsewhere an effective scoundrel in the ROAD pictures, the movie effects a form of castration on Frank McHugh, wheezing dirty imp of pre-code days, now a gurgling priest, his smutty laugh replaced with a warm chortle which McCarey keeps cutting to until the chubby clergyman leaves humanity behind and comes to resemble a punctuation mark or musical note or piece of found footage, dropped in whenever a warm chortle is needed.

This is a scene where McHugh has come to deliver sad news, which gives you some idea.

And then Crosby gets a new posting and just strolls off, not into the distance as is customary, but sideways, sidling offscreen (into a lucrative sequel, as it happens). THE END appears softly, in Hallmark Christmas card font, without fanfare, the lack of music and closure undercutting its finality. Death is completely absent from the duties of these priests, and from the movie: when a minor character goes to war and is reported injured, everybody is amused by the ironic circumstances of the accident and nobody asks if he’s going to be OK: we can assume he’s fine, apparently. Everybody’s always fine. Everything’s fine.

Merry Christmas!

 

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Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by dcairns

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“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.

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A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:

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I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.

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Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.

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Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)

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Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.

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“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.

“A principle’s a principle!”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2008 by dcairns

~ A line from Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK.

A shot from the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK:

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A street sign points out Barry Fitzgerald.

A shot from the opening of  Martin Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK:

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A neon sign points out Robert DeNiro.