Archive for Ben Hecht

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Devil’s Carnival

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Josef Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927) brought the gangster picture back from obscurity — if Griffith’s MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is the first wave, and Walsh’s REGENERATION inaugurates the second, this one starts another torrent which continues almost unbroken into the Warner Bros talking era.

Now that great confabulator Howard Hawks, a quasi-friend and sometime collaborator of Sternberg’s (they shared the screenwriter Jules Furthman) claimed that when he proposed a gangster pic to Ben Hecht, Hecht wasn’t interested because he felt the genre was played out. Hawks pitch of “the Borgias in Chicago” is said to have changed his mind. But if Hecht was afraid of repeating himself with SCARFACE (1932), would he have reprised so many of the earlier film’s tropes?

Bull Weed (the repulsive George Bancroft) looks up at a neon advertisement promising “The City is Yours.” Tony (Paul Muni) admires a sign which declares “The World is Yours.” Arguably, the second version is an improvement: Bancroft feels vindicated by a statement which is practically true, or feels true. Muni sees an unfulfillable promise, the lie of the American dream, of life.

Hawks stages a party aftermath strewn with streamers which closely matches the dying hours of the ball which Hecht had concocted for UNDERWORLD. Though I’m inclined to give Sternberg a little credit here — the idea of a society engagement for the underworld is delightful, whimsical. Hecht knew gangland from his newspaper days. Sternberg decried research and liked to work from a position of romantic ignorance.

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There’s a contest for moll of the year. I love all the nicknames.

Hawks also claimed to have suggested Dietrich’s tuxedo in MOROCCO, which is possible, I guess. But, though some rumours suggest Hawks was bi, and he gave several of his leading ladies a masculine edge, perversity is really more of a Sternberg thing, and Dietrich’s girl-girl kiss would seem more up his street. But who knows? Hawks’ anecdotes all revolve, in a way that would be monotonous if he wasn’t such a good storyteller, around his own mastery of every situation, his brilliant creative decision-making and his ability to get everybody to do exactly what he wants. Then again, his films are usually good enough to make you believe he really was that proficient.

Did Hawks invent the money thrown in the spittoon in UNDERWORLD? Is that why he felt entitled to basically just steal it for RIO BRAVO? Or did he just figure it was worth doing again, thirty years later, since the audience has a short memory? At any rate, RIO BRAVO improves on the idea since it gives John Wayne more motivation to intervene in Dean Martin’s alcoholic degradation than George Bancroft had in pulling Clive Brook out of the gutter.

Funny, Fiona hates stuffed shirt Brook in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (“He’s a chin,” explained Sternberg to Dietrich, when she asked what he new leading man was like), but since enjoying his one directorial effort, ON APPROVAL, she is open to liking him. She liked him in this, and was rooting for him and Evelyn Brent (as “Feathers”). It helps that George Bancroft really is disgusting.

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Brandy and Soda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2012 by dcairns

Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!

This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.

This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).

It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.

Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.

I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.