Archive for Charles Boyer

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

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The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

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Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

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Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by dcairns

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After the special screening of CLUNY BROWN at Filmhouse, there was much discussion among the appreciative audience about why the film wasn’t better known. Various theories were mooted –

1) Vagaries of TV scheduling — none of us could remember catching CLUNY on TV. While IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a flop on first release, became a Christmas classic because it had lapsed into the public domain and therefore could be screened free of charge, and therefore was screened A LOT, and while CASABLANCA was already a firm favourite but was given a boost by the fact that Curtiz’s unusual use of closeups makes the film play very well on a small screen, CLUNY BROWN may have just missed out on finding a place on the small screen. And TV is what has kept film history somewhat in the public mind — the dropping of old movies from the schedules has brought about mass amnesia in the young, the loss of a whole language composed of once-iconic faces. Not only are there now western adults who don’t know Jimmy Cagney, they may be in the majority.

2) Vagaries of contemporary reviewing — coming after a string of successes, the somewhat uncategorizable and utterly relaxed CLUNY BROWN probably didn’t get the love it deserved. If you’d just given five-star reviews to NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and HEAVEN CAN WAIT, you might be inclined to nit-pick just for variety. And you could probably find a few things to criticise –

3) The first act takes place in a London flat and deals with Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) preparing a cocktail party and in need of a plumber. It feels like the whole film is going to be a series of people arriving at the door and either mistaken for plumbers or being plumbers and mistaken for ordinary civilians. But then the film takes off for the countryside and we never see Hilary Ames again. There’s also a coda in New York. So the film is extremely casual about structure, and some people seem to mistake this for sloppiness. Certainly the film has a lightness and a country house setting in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but eschews the tightly-plotted farce form which is one of Wodehouse’s defining merits.

But in fact, all subplots are nicely rounded off and despite the need for comedy characters to resist change, I think we get about four-to-six full character acts, all of which are affecting and delightful. The movie appears to take its time, yet packs in lots of funny supporting players and explores the themes of class and inhibitions and “knowing your place” in a thorough and intelligent manner. It was suggested that the modern Downton Abbey audience might find it very amenable.

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4) Charles Boyer is today mainly known for GASLIGHT and Jennifer Jones I guess for DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. This film shows them in very different modes. They’re both brilliant. He’s just generally excellent, implying Adam Belinski’s romantic yearnings and heartbreak with only the tiniest hints. Jones, with her preposterous attempt at an English accent (inconsistent in itself and about three social classes too high), and her rather full-on approach to every emotion, is less obviously a skilled player, but in fact everything she does is PERFECT. Even the accent works in a weird way, suggesting Cluny’s fish-out-of-water quality. You’ll notice that nobody criticizes Boyer for failing to do a convincing Czech accent, so why should we object to her wandering vowel sounds?

5) The only major cult figure in the supporting class is Una O’Connor, who does sterling work (restrained by her standards). But there ought to be a cult around Richard Haydn, a real cult that worships him as a god. And Peter Lawford’s callow young man roles in this and the criminally unappreciated Christmas film SOMEONE TO REMEMBER (Robert Siodmak) ought to be enough to redeem him from the Rat Pack pigeonhole he got himself jammed into later. Everybody’s good in this — Canadian Margaret Bannerman makes a splendid English lady of the manor, initially a silly goose, but revealing almost mystic levels of grace and understanding. “We must have a talk about the garden, because everything’s planned three years in advance,” becomes, in her reading, a rather eerie and beautiful encapsulation of Britishness.

Helen Walker’s career was tragically derailed but she’s wonderful and lovely (and believably English) as the Honourable Betty Cream (she doesn’t go everywhere, but she does sit a horse well, hang it) — she has this and NIGHTMARE ALLEY as twin claims to immortality.

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Sarah Allgood and Ernest Cossart — the head servants are far more snobbish and unsympathetic than their masters, which points to the fact that this is a film poking fun at class but still from a slightly conservative viewpoint. Lubitsch is not out to overthrow the system, although in the context of the stultified society presented, Boyer’s cri de coeur of “Your place is wherever you are happy” (paraphrased as “Squirrels to the nuts!”) is somewhat revolutionary.

I’ve just discovered via the IMDb that Cossart was the actual brother of Gustav Holst. Now I have an image of him cavorting in a toga to the theme of Jupiter from The Planets Suite. It’s quite a nice image, really.

***

But really those are all the reasons I can think of why this isn’t a gigantic renowned classic, and I don’t really believe any of them are good reasons.

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Marcel Wave

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2012 by dcairns

Marcel L’Herbier, having shot L’ARGENT at Bernard Natan’s studio, returned to work for Pathe-Natan on three features.* ENFANT DE L’AMOUR has the reputation of being a dud, but L’AVENTURIER is rather good and LE BONHEUR might just be a masterpiece. A strange one, to be sure, but still…

In L’AVENTURIER, Victor Francen is the black sheep of a bourgeois family who returns from a wild life abroad as drug dealer, arms trader and slave trafficker, to shepherd the family business through a problematic bit of industrial relations. The middle-class emerge as weak and corrupt, whereas Francen’s character is portrayed as strong, masculine, effective — and an amoral fascist. But he’s true to his own ideas and we’re meant to find him fascinating and alluring. Politically, it’s quite worrying, but L’Herbier’s filmmaking is assured and elegant.

LE BONHEUR is more twisted still, but fascinatingly so. Charles Boyer plays some kind of ill-defined nihilist, an “anti-social,” who shoots a beloved singing star (Gaby Morlay) as a purely gestural act of defiance to society. When Morlay survives, she becomes enamoured of her would-be assassin and waits for him upon his release from prison. Their subsequent love affair understandably shocks everybody, but the film is on their side.

“Charles Boyer didn’t get to play anarchistic assassins when he was in Hollywood,” remarked David Wingrove, my benshi translator for the occasion.

The film also sports, like L’AVENTURIER, a walk-on for a young Jean Marais, a very sweet performance by Paulette Dubost, and uniquely, a camp turn by Michel Simon as Morlay’s swishy agent. It’s a rather affectionate caricature, it seems to me, Pangbornian in the best sense, and quite a surprising thing for the burly Simon to attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also interesting since Marcel L’Herbier was France’s most openly gay director. More people knew about him than about Cocteau, it seems. Whether his wife was in on the secret, I don’t know.

LE BONHEUR might be my favourite L’Herbier yet, which is interesting since conventional wisdom regards him as a spent force by the dawn of talkies. It’s a meditation on the power of cinema, brought home when the lovers part but he tells her that he’ll see her on the screen. It’s also a fascinating melodrama because, despite much discussion and self-analysis by the characters, essentially all the major events take place for no explicable reason –

Boyer’s shooting of Morlay –

His subsequent love for her –

Her love for him –

His leaving her –

All happen as if plot requirements were puppeteering the characters. And yet the characters never cease to feel real, rational to a degree, and human. It’s quite a strange take on the melodramatic form, and I can’t wait to see if it’s carried on in L’Herbier’s subsequent films.

Paulette Dubost, who cheated us out of an interview by dying a year too soon. She’s wonderful in this, as a wide-eyed working girl. Testifying at Boyer’s trial, she hangs her handbag on the witness stand. Touching and funny.

*L’Herbier wrote to Natan after shooting L’AVENTURIER, fulsomely praising working conditions at the studio. Then he was injured on set making LE BONHEUR, and sued the company for negligence (he seems to have been a pioneer in industrial accident litigation, in fact). By the time of Natan’s arrest for fraud, L’Herbier was writing to the press demanding that foreign filmmakers in France, “these people with names ending in ‘isky’,” should be prevented by law from changing their names to sound French. All very unfortunate.

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