Archive for Buddy Ebsen

Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2016 by dcairns

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So, my enjoyment of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA led me to investigate the often-overlooked John Cromwell a bit, flipping through my heap of unwatched discs to see what I might have of his lying about. BANJO ON MY KNEE came up — Stanwyck, McCrea? What’s not to like? Walter Brennan in support? Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson? All good.

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Plus Walter Catlett in the role of Harold Lloyd’s dirty uncle.

It’s not all good, though, but it has definite pleasures. It begins with a wedding, and the impetus gained by starting with the leads already tying the knot gives a sense of plunging right in. The story world is a novel one — the main characters are Mississippi river-folk, dwelling on boats anchored to tiny islands in the great river. The only unfortunate thing about this is it brings in a lot of rowdy humour of the kind Johnson would supply to John Ford, a little of which goes a long way. As the movie goes on, preventing McCrea and Stanwyck from consummating their wedding takes quite a lot of plot ingenuity, and where that fails, the movie resorts to making McCrea an obnoxious lout. Now, it takes quite a lot to render the laid-back McCrea dislikable, but at times this movie definitely manages it.

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Brennan fulfills his allotted role as Mr. Entertainment, playing McCrea’s old dad, lugging around his one-man-band “contraption,” and there’s amusing support from Buddy Ebsen and the sullen, feisty Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of Cecil, wife of Anthony Quinn). Tony Martin suddenly turns up. “Who the hell is that?” asked Fiona. “A bar of soap,” I suggested. But do you know, by the end, we quite liked him. But, just when he’s become more of a hero than McCrea, the movie forgets he’s there.

Theresa Harris from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Brennan’s contraption and Martin’s crooning combine to make this a kind of stealth musical. All the numbers are diegetic, performed in situations where they might be performed, and the plot to some extent revolves around Brennan’s desire to serenade his son and daughter-in-law on their first night of passion, that he might become a grandfather. The biggest number, and the one that feels most on the verge of breaking the fourth wall, is a rendition of St Louis Woman by the great Theresa Harris. I swear you can actually see the splice where this whole scene could be removed for screenings in the south, so that residents of the film’s locales wouldn’t have to be offended by the sight of a black person being talented.

In a way, music goes beyond being a feature in the film and becomes a theme, a plot point and a character.

Cromwell’s skill with striking compositions is much in evidence, so even though the surly hero and incessant brawling get you down a bit, the visuals and the music and the players sustain interest and provide lashings of entertainment, with a slightly unusual flavour. And Katherine DeMille, in a magnificently mean and moody supporting role, produces a surprising burst of wet slip action which puts Annabella in the shade. Or it would if Annabella stood next to her and crouched. Seems to be a Zanuck fetish.

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The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~

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Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.