Archive for Basil Rathbone

A man walks through a door funny

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2017 by dcairns

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Do I need to explain the title? I will if you want me to.

So having watched the later Esther Williams spectaculars, JUPITER’S DARLING, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, EASY TO LOVE and DANGEROUS WHEN WET (plus ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME) we eventually ran an early effort, BATHING BEAUTY, which sadly has nothing to do with Mack Sennett but features a scene I’d heard about, without recalling what movie it was from…

First, this film — it has Red Skelton as hero, getting more screen time than Esther, and it has Basil Rathbone as a louse, and an all-too brief Margaret Dumont bit. MGM evidently didn’t have confidence in Esther carrying a film yet (but her low-key performing style is DELIGHTFUL) so they stuff the film with all the crap distractions they can find — Xavier Cugat, pint-sized cutie Jean Porter, wild organist Ethel Smith, Lina Romay (not the Jesus Franco star, wonderful though that would be), Harry James and his orchestra, Helen Forrest, Colombian baritone Carlos Ramirez (although “Colombian baritone” sounds like something horrible they do to you in the drugs trade to send a strong message)… at the end there’s a big ridiculous water pageant so Esther can do her stuff, but she remains dry apart from that and the opening scene, so it’s really just a foretaste of the wonders to come. George Sidney directs with a lot of lush colour and swooping crane-work. Directorial suavity allows Harry James to float over the heads of his big band while blasting his trumpet…

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The film has seven credited screenwriters, absurdly — the story is paper-thin and the runtime is about fifty per cent irrelevant musical numbers, but I’m interested mainly in an uncredited scenarist, Buster Keaton, who was back working at MGM as a gag man, getting paid about a hundredth of what he’d earned there as a star, and happy to get it. They called Buster in having trapped Red Skelton in a closet with a big dog outside. Red has to escape the house and get back to his dorm or he’ll be expelled.

First he drags up in Esther’s clothes which he can somehow fit, but the dog recognizes him even in disguise (must be those overdeveloped smile muscles). Then he gets the idea of meowing, waving a fox fur at the hound, and throwing it out the window. The dog obligingly bounds out the window in pursuit. Red slams the window and starts to leave, but the dog is now waiting at the front door.

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Nice protracted bit where Red rushes from door to window and back, always finding the mutt waiting for him at either aperture. The dog isn’t really dislikably fierce — one actually admires his, ahem, doggedness.

This is all quite amusing but apparently none of the seven or was it eight writers (yup, IMDb supplies an uncredited eighth) could think of a solution that would allow Red to escape.

Buster suggested he go to the door, unfasten the hinges, and then lift the detached door. Holding it by the inside of the frame, Red turns it like a revolving door — he leaves the house as the dog enters, trying to get at him. The dog ends up stuck indoors and Red is free.

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The fact that this is an engineering gag marks it out as recognizably Buster’s, even if we hadn’t been told.

There’s another Buster moment though. As the only male student at a girl’s college, (long story — it took eight writers to write it — or nine, counting Buster) Red is forced to attend a eurythmics class, which turns out to be just plain old ballet. Former vaudevillian Ann Codee is teacher, mercilessly slapping Red around. At one point, she orders him to put his foot on the bar. Red does so, stretching his poor abductor muscles pitifully, then unaccountably decides to put his other foot up on the bar too. He succeeds, momentarily, only to fall on his ass on account of not having anything holding him up.

Fiona and I both recognized this gag — I was going to sat it’s the first movie pratfall Buster ever performed. In THE BUTCHER BOY (1917), Buster’s flap shoes get stuck to the floor with molasses. Tugging his right foot free, he places it on the counter to keep it out of the sticky mess. Then he tugs the left foot free and places it next to the right, for neatness’ sake, an instant before he finds himself sat on the floor. But in fact, that’s not what happens in THE BUTCHER BOY, that version of events only occured when Buster recreated the sequence in his TV show, as seen in Kevin Brownlow’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. And that’s AFTER the Red Skelton iteration of the “put your feet up” gag. But I still believe it’s Buster’s idea.

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The whole ballet routine is very good work from Skelton. He gets a sweetie wrapper stuck to his foot (shades of the molasses gag) and is trying to get rid of it while dancing, passing it from foot to hand to hand to other ballerina, who passes it on around the room via every other girl and back to Red. A nice idea, beautifully staged by Sidney, performed by Skelton and the cast — and almost certainly conceived by Buster.

Silent Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 24, 2011 by dcairns

A Shadowplay Production.

What I’ve done is, like Sid Sheinberg of Universal, I’ve re-edited a classic Christmas film into a new and more digestible form. I pray history will judge me as benevolently as it judges the guy who tried to butcher BRAZIL…

Visuals — An Edison version of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

Audio — Basil Rathbone reading the story. This was a novelty record, but it came from a warm place — Baz loved the story, and read it to his daughter. Now we can experience what she felt, down to her toasty-warm carpet slippers.

Of course, the visuals did not seamlessly match the audio, and indeed Edison has taken his own path through the poem, tending to take Santa’s point of view as much as the nameless narrator’s. So I’ve moved things around according to the soundtrack and my own whim, and unapologetically fitted the intertitles to the portions where Basil speaks those verses, gloriously redundant though this is. What I discovered, though, is how closely Edison and his troupe paid attention to the poem — the moment when Santa spins round and touches his nose is straight from Clement Clarke Moore’s verse.

Of course, the best bit turns out to be when Edison has failed to provide any accompanying images to long stretches of poem, so I’m forced to use shots that don’t directly illustrate the words at all — this is how sound and image should work, as a kind of fugue. I should have forced them to diverge more — Edison actually does this in his original film, following the title about the children all being tucked in their beds with a vigorous pillow fight — parody trumps reverence every time.

Here, you can see the original version, which plays around with chronology and point of view and such. Also, by selecting carefully which stanzas to quote, the filmmakers avoid having to deal with Clarke’s miniaturized Santa (so that’s how he fits down the chimney!), a stunted halfling apparently no bigger than a poodle dog.

The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE —

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…