Archive for Boulting brothers

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

The Sunday Intertitle: Choccy Moloch

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2021 by dcairns

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK holds up better than the other Boulting Bros’ satires, I think. It’s unusual in that it’s a right-wing satire that’s actually funny. There is a slight attempt at even-handedness: when a worker explains that by having two unions, they can continually pressure the bosses to raise salaries, he adds that without this crafty approach, they wouldn’t get any raises at all. That’s a pretty minuscule sop.

So if the film, firing in all directions, is FOR anything, it’s for “compassionate capitalism.” If the workers are treated fairly by the employers, we can do away with unions altogether and peace will reign. Kind of weird that they use that title, shorthand for “Sod you, Jack, I’m all right” — intended to convey individual selfishness. Here, the different classes are united in opposition to one another, but there’s real group unity within each. They stick together.

Still, with the bosses played by Terry-Thomas (idiot) and Richard Attenborough (cad) and in bed with sleazy politico Dennis Price (crook) and sleazy foreigner Marne Maitland (seen stealing the cutlery), it’s fair to say nobody comes out of it well. But if you unpick where the film is heading with its argument, you find near-fascism at the end of the ellipsis.

My late friend Lawrie Knight found himself trapped between doors with Roy Boulting: the “filming” light was on so they couldn’t go forward and there was no point going back outside. So they waited. RB noticed Lawrie’s public school tie, and immediately became friendlier than he had been previously. Lawrie was a mere third assistant director. And he was appalled at RB’s sudden change of manner. “I mean, I’m a terrible snob, but this was too much!”

Peter Sellers’ magisterial performance as Fred Kite, union man, makes the film, though it’s crammed to the rafters with superb players in meaty comic roles. Dennis Price raises his game: sure, he’s always good, but he’s always THE SAME. He could have played this role with his eyes closed, but he wakes up for it and knocks it out of the park.

There’s a modest attempt to portray the women as the sensible parties, but this involves showing Mrs. Kite (Irene Handl, fabulous as always) cozying up to our hero’s posh Aunt Dolly with a forelock-tugging obsequiousness that’s portrayed as somehow instinctive and proper. Uncomfortable. Though seeing those two share a scene is a joy.

But I mainly want to talk about the chocolate factory. Our hero (Ian Carmichael, mousy drip to perfection) is taken on a tour of this joint, and if Willie Wonka’s plant is a gaudy death-trap, and that of Lord Scrumptious an expressionistic panopticon, then the Num-Yum factory’s METROPOLIS-inspired imagery, with the rhythmic soundtrack of burping and farting machinery (no doubt inspired by the jazzy chemistry sounds of THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, a subtler, more compassionate and genuinely curious film than this) takes the film into a nauseating nightmare realm, just for this one scene. It’s a film full of disgust, moral or aesthetic, but it only assumes visceral form here. The boultings may have had the wrong slant on politics and society, but they got one thing right about satire: it’s motivated by nausea.

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK stars Bertie Wooster; Sir Hiss – A Snake; Chance; Kris Kringle; Jeeves; Madame Arcati; Mrs Gimble; Glad Trimble; Canon Chasuble; The Malay; Sgt. Wilson; Mr. Hoylake; Anxious O’Toole; Lenny the Dip; Archbishop Gilday; Orlando O’Connor; Lily Swann; and Sgt. Potty Chambers.

Not Wanted On Voyage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-10h31m37s19

My late friend Lawrie Knight was an assistant director in the 1940s. He did some work for the Boulting Brothers, among others — I’m not sure what the film was. One time, he found himself trapped in a kind of airlock with one of the twins — not sure which, let’s just say Roy. Or John. The airlock was the space between the outer and inner doors of the studio, and just as they had passed through the outer doors, the red light had come on, signalling filming (not doubt under the aegis of the other brother, John. Or Roy.) So they were stuck at close quarters for a few minutes.

During the awkward silence, Roy (or John) noticed Lawrie’s school tie. And because it was a tie from one of our better public schools, he immediately started treating Lawrie a lot better, And Lawrie, who would confess to being a bit of a snob himself at times, was appalled, thought “You idiot,” and generally thought far less of John (or Roy) Boulting thereafter.

I mention this because TRUNK CRIME, an early (1939) opus, produced by John and directed (and edited) by Roy, deals with school in a way, and conveys a rather anxious view of it, perhaps anticipating the brothers’ 1948 film THE GUINEA PIG.

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-10h31m22s117

Manning Whiley plays an over-aged college graduate who takes a hideous revenge on the young man who’s bullied him since their days at public school, even to the point of once burying him alive. At the start of the story, the bully and his drunken pals break into Whiley’s digs and trash the room in a home invasion scenario only slightly less brutal and shocking than that in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Deranged with impotent fury, Whiley proceeds to drug his arch-enemy and lock him in a steamer trunk, having informed him just as he becomes insensible of his intention to ship him to his cottage in the country and sink him in quicksand.

It’s an unusual scenario: the victim is utterly unsympathetic, and the villain is someone you feel a lot of compassion for, but you can’t quite go along with what he’s contemplating doing (I nearly can: I hate bullies). Of course, Whiley is forever bumping into people who randomly want to open his trunk and have a shufty inside, and even Patch the dog, who gets his own screen credit, is very curious. It’s all very ROPE — some of the plot developments don’t quite convince or compel, and Boulting should have hired someone else to edit it — when we edit our own stuff, we often don’t try hard enough to solve our directorial mistakes, accepting them as somehow inherent. But it has a very nice denouement — we suspected the movie’s heart was in the right place, and it is.

Fiona, wandering in midway, couldn’t believe it was called TRUNK CRIME. There’s even a newsstand bearing the slogan ANOTHER TRUNK CRIME, so presumably this was a common phrase in 1939. I can’t seem to find out exactly what it meant, but I doubt it typically involved doping people, packing them up and submerging them in a handy quagmire. “Does he have a trunk?” she asked. “He has two,” I replied, which is true. There’s some unnecessary detail about Whiley planning to substitute one case for another. “Should it be called TRUNKS CRIME then?” But I think that might have suggested a crime committed by a swimmer.

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-10h32m22s200

Manning Whiley is good at being high-strung, that’s for sure. His every utterance is a-quiver with neurasthenic fervor. He also looks oddly Japanese. I see he was born in Australia… well, anything’s possible down there.

The movie also features a shockingly young and unrecognizable Thorley Walters, though once you get over the shock, his acting style is quite consistent. The bluff, ruddy, dopey Dr. Watson manner he assumed in all his Hammer performances has quite a different effect when filtered through the personage of a gangly youth — he’s much more of a P.G. Wodehouse twerp from the Drone’s Club. Interesting.

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-10h30m43s205

Walters, left.

Boulting, anticipating Carol Reed, is not shy about getting his Dutch tilts out. (Why are they called Dutch tilts? Isn’t Holland notoriously flat?)