Archive for Charles Brackett

My City (The Disney* Version)

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by dcairns

JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, the Disney production, directed by Henry Levin (who helmed the fun I LOVE A MYSTERY series), and more importantly scripted and produced by Charles Brackett, for some unknown but doubtless delightful reason, shifts the protagonist’s place of residence to my own fair city of Edinburgh, affording us numerous touristic views of historical areas of interest (which can be made period-friendly with next to no effort) and a strange Irish accent from James Mason, like a badly trampled version of the stage Oirish he essayed in ODD MAN OUT and THE RECKLESS MOMENT. In one scene he impersonates his character’s grandmother and suddenly produces a cartoonish but recognisable Glasgwegian. Arlene Dahl just plays her Swedish character as American, so it’s left to Pat Boone to try to fill in some kind of otherwise absent idiomatic authenticity. This, it seems to me, is a mistake.

In fact, Pat does better than the rest of them, filtering some kind of general-purpose Scottish accent into his existing US one, resulting in a sort of Floridian burr. It’s still less convincing than the enlarged iguanas at the Earth’s core (if this movie had Harryhausen, it’d be an all-time classic) but he gets points for sort of trying, and more points for not trying too hard.

Probably none of this fauxthenticity was helped by the fact that the location shots above are all second unit with a stand-in taking Mason’s place when required.

*And by Disney it seems I mean 20th Century Fox.

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Flying Scots

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by dcairns

Leisen shows his hand.

Mitchell Leisen’s Regency romp KITTY and Joseph Losey’s espionage caper MODESTY BLAISE don’t have much in common, or anything in common, really, but I am resolved to make a Fever Dream Double Feature of them.

I guess they do both have women’s names as titles, but the spurious point I’m going to concentrate on is the strange preponderance of Scots in both films. The Scots have been widely ignored in both British and American cinema (although not as badly as the Welsh, it should be admitted), so it’s always surprising to find a film with not only a single token Scot, but a handful of them stinking up the place.

Monica Vitti — not Scottish, alas.

MODESTY BLAISE continues Joseph Losey’s interest in the Celtic peoples, already well established by his use of Stanley Baker, whose Welshness he emphasised in BLIND DATE and EVA. Losey had a real passion for the intricacies of British society, particularly with regard to class, but also with the different tribes of Briton. Gordon Jackson’s little turn in BLIND DATE is an early example of the Scottish influence.

The first Scottish voice heard in MODESTY BLAISE is that of Alexander Knox, in reality a Canadian of Scots descent who had bought a home in the tiny town of Longniddry, just down the coast from Edinburgh. I made a film there once. Despite advantages of ancestry and habitation, Knox’s comedy Scotsman is more imaginative than realistic, bearing a close resemblance to Freddie Jones’s rogue psychiatrist in THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. In other words, it’s a silly voice, and as such, quite amusing. The way to do a comedy Scotsman is to speak in a very high voice, with clipped diction, so each word is a Separate! Little! Squeak! The accent is usually Morningside, a somewhat fictitious form of posh Scots associated with the Edinburgh district of that name, and with Maggie Smith’s performances in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN  BRODIE and the HARRY POTTER films.

But making the Foreign Office chappie a Scot isn’t enough for Losey. He also has New Zealand man-of-many-accents Clive Revill play the arch-villain’s accountant, McWhirter (he also doubles as a comedy Sheik). Revill was a character star for about ten years, landing plum supporting roles and bringing a caricaturist’s observation to bear upon various Italian hoteliers, Russian balletomanes, English psychic investigators, etc. Then he suddenly stopped being somebody audiences had heard of, although he continues to this day, providing many voices for both animated and live action Hollywood films.

The third Scot is a surprise, since Terence Stamp’s character, Willie Garvin, while cockney through and through, sports a Scottish surname, dating back to 1651. Based on all this, MODESTY BLAISE must be Losey’s most Scottish film. Since the movie is to some extent a Bond spoof, maybe this is directed at Sean Connery, in some obscure way?

KITTY (1945) is a terrific period comedy-drama from the great Mitchell Leisen, who threw himself into the design and historical research work, without this time losing sight of the story and performances. Paulette Goddard gives possibly her very best performance, with a mostly convincing and always enjoyable cockney accent borrowed from Ida Lupino’s mum, and displaying physical comedy skills perhaps derived from her years as Mrs Charles Chaplin. Her Kitty starts as a buckle-thief, stealing footwear from gents dismounting from carriages, and rises through society until she’s on nodding terms with royalty, her voice having had the Henry Higgins treatment.

But the accents that concern me are northern ones. First, Mr. McNab, tailor to the film’s leading man, Ray Milland. McNab, as is too often the way with tailors, wants paid. Milland delays the dreadful hour by complaining about the quality of McNab’s workmanship. The jacket and waistcoat must be refitted before he will pay a penny. He will drop in on Mr McNab when he has time. The crisis is deferred and the stingy Scot sent packing. Alec Craig, a real Scot from Dunfermline, Fife, plays the role. By a startling coincidence, I’d just seen him play a man on a park bench in Jean Negulesco’s witty THREE STRANGERS (1946), his final performance (he died before the film came out).

Next, Milland turns his mind to fleecing another Celt, his neighbour, an ironmonger named Selby. By marrying Pygmalion-style reformed guttersnipe Paulette Goddard to the tradesman, Milland is able to secure a dower, plus whatever Paulette can steal from Selby’s strongbox. It all ends badly — for Selby. He’s played by an Englishman (gasp!), Dennis Hoey, who’s best known for playing Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.

Now widowed, Kitty/Paulette continues her rise up the social ladder by marrying the Duke of Malmunster, Reginald Owen. Owen’s a delightful comic player whom I mainly know from THE GOOD FAIRY. “Did you see his eyes,” remarks Frank Morgan in Preston Sturges superb script, “Like angry marbles!” Here he’s less angry but he’s very old, so the news of his son’s birth (in reality, the ironmonger’s) is a bit much for him. This sequence allows Leisen the opportunity for some amazing sustained camera moves, showing off his fantastic sets, gorgeous lighting, but also creating a slightly eerie effect. The character’s ill-health having been established in advance, the longer the sequence goes on, the larger Malmunster’s home is revealed to be, the more certain his eventual demise comes to seem.

It’s at this point that we meet the Scottish nanny. This film is dripping with Scots. This one is Glaswegian bit-part specialist Mary Gordon (no relation to namesake M, habitue of the Comments section here!), another graduate of the Sherlock Holmes series, having played faithful landlady Mrs Hudson. She can also be seen in THE BODY SNATCHER, bringing some much-needed local colour to the film (I might be the best person to write about that film’s Scottishness, its relation to Stevenson’s story and to history — I should do this), and she crops up in BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN too, bringing still more disruption to a film that positively revels in the wanton clash of accent upon accent.

Thus to the memorial service, which is accompanied by bagpipes. I wonder if Leisen is attempting to make up for the sins of ARISE MY LOVE, in which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script relocated the Hebrides to “off the coast of Ireland”.

OK, Mitch, we forgive you.

Esther and the swing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2008 by dcairns

A fever-dream double feature.

St Joan

Channel 4, home of the cut-price movie matinee, has been showing afternoon films all week starring that AXIOM OF CINEMA, Joan Collins. Two of them had solid auteur credentials, if we can allow the use of the a-word, so I checked them out. That’s Shadowplay — faithfully watching Joan Collins movies, so you don’t have to.

ESTHER AND THE KING has the double-whammy of being directed (and produced, and co-written) by mighty eye-patch wearing wild man Raoul Walsh, and photographed by Mario Bava. I’d caught glimpses of this movie and I’m a sucker for Bava’s trademark Disneyland Blue, which is on display in nearly all this movie’s interiors. Word has it that Walsh liked Bava’swork so much he delegated most of of E&TK to him. It’s certainly a film that has more in common with Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER or HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD than it does with WHITE HEAT or GENTLEMAN JIM. Since Bava’s primary focus is the visual, when given his head as a cinematographer he can really subsume a film into his style, becoming its auteur by default (I still don’t like that word, but you know what I mean — the person with the unifying vision). And since energy was always a big part of the Walsh approach, and there’s far less of that in his later work, there is a void to be filled.

(Late-period Walsh is unlikely to win the consideration lately awarded to late Hawks, Ford or Lang. Persons hoping to admire Walsh in his Mature Phase are recommended to sit through THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW, a Western of Damaged Brain uniting Kenneth More [British cinema’s perennial “decent bloke”] with Jayne Mansfield [I.Q. of a genius but she kept it off the screen] and then give the whole thing up as a bad job.)

Dance Hall

Bava fills the void with mind-frazzling candy colours, seen to best advantage in the film’s numerous palace entertainments, starring dancing girls in revealing tunics, or unconvincingly miming Nubian singers — the voice is THAT WOMAN who does all the Ennio Morricone wailing. While it doesn’t quite slide into the autistic trance-state of Howard Hughes’ SON OF SINBAD, which stops the “plot” for a belly-dance every 3 frames (David Bordwell would break his clicker trying to keep score), giving new meaning to the phrase “navel-gazing”, this is still a film more interested in bringing on the next dance number than in sorting out Judeo-Persian politics — and who can blame it? Even in Channel 4’s lamentably cropped 16:9 version, these scenes have a wondrous lustre and pop, as fleshy Italian chorines writhe and stagger. 

Salome's Last Dance

A classic Bava shot: symmetrical framing, asymmetrical and unmotivated coloured lighting on the lions.

Of course, Bava wasn’t hugely interested in performance, and I know you’ll shudder in terror as you read this, but Joan Collins is the best actor in ESTHER AND THE KING. There, I’ve said it. Such a thing exists — a film where Joan stands supreme, talent-wise, if only because she’s surrounded by an unbeatable selection of human planks, lugs, stiffs and dolts. The camp harem commandant is the closest thing to a characterisation on offer (eunuch = homosexual in E&TK’s schema).

Joan’s scenes in the harem are among the most amusing. She starts the film in fine form, attempting random bursts of American accent and doing truly extraordinary things with her face while everybody around her is trying to act. In closeup she’s more subdued, having presumably been fed the Hedy Lamarr dictum on how to look beautiful: “Just stand still and look stupid.” This, Joan can do.

Pope Joan

The Persian shagging-palace is depicted herein as a less austere version of the famous Rank Charm School, where the real-life Joan, along with Barbara Steele and Julie Christie, was educated in deportment, enunciation and, well, charm. This fine institution is satirised in Lauder and Gilliat’s LADY GODIVA RIDES AGAIN, a film in which Joan has an uncredited cameo, along with half the British film industry (“Laughable term!” says Alistair Sim). The school’s graduates were trained in disguising any traces of a working class accent (the late Stratford Johns took great satisfaction in telling me how “common” the Collins sisters were back in the early ’50s), walking with a book balanced atop their heads, and getting out of cars without revealing their underwear to the photographers (not yet known as paparazzi) — would that today’s celebs boasted such a skill-set!

Swing High Swing Low

Gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe!

Joan gets sent to finishing school all over again in THE GIRL ON THE RED VELVET SWING, a true-crime story directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer did a stupendous job with (working backwards) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (the Christie murders, very accurate), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (heavily fictionalised) and a very decent job on COMPULSION (Leopold & Loeb, quasi-accurate as far as it goes). This movie climaxes act 2 with a scandalous homicide, but it isn’t primarily a crime film, more of a woman’s picture (red drapes behind the credit sequence) and Joan is the woman whose picture it is.

Ray Milland is Stanford White, America’s greatest architect of the gilded age. Farley Granger is the spoiled and possibly psychotic Harry Thaw. Joan is Floradora Girl Evelyn Nesbitt, who throws herself at the married Milland (“She’s a stupid slut,” pronounced Fiona, and I believe there was a hint of disapproval in her tone) before allowing herself to be wooed by Granger.

Things the movie omits to tell us: White was carrying on with lots of other chorus girls too; he may have drugged their champagne in order to date-rape them; Thaw was a coke fiend; he had a fondness for beating women with a dog whip; Nesbitt became impregnated by John Barrymore; her abortion was procured at a finishing school run by the mother of Cecil B DeMille.

Fever Dream aborion nervous breakdown

On The Bitch

In the movie, Joan’s abortion is instead a nervous breakdown (I guess the logic is, “We need something shameful but not sexual”), presented in a series of lap dissolves as she tosses in her delirium: montage=mental illness. Producer and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett (working with Walter Reisch, previously his collaborator on NINOTCHKA) struggles to get any dramatic fire going. Joan is remarkably good-ish in this — she must have devolved a bit between GIRL and ESTHER. 20th Century Fox had planned to cast Marilyn Monroe, but she was on suspension. Ray Milland is always reliable, but can’t really be outstanding in the part as written. Granger has the flashiest role but he can’t quite make a show-stopper out of it, he’s not really that kind of actor. Brad Dourif had the role in RAGTIME, and he’s a much better idea.

At the film’s “climax”, Joan must sway a jury single-handedly, with a testimony so powerful that they are forced to acquit a man arrested for publicly shooting an old guy in the face, in the crowded theatre of Madison Square Garden, while shouting “He ruined my wife!” (In the real-life case, nobody could say for sure whether it was “wife” or “life”. A minor point — the guy was still dead.)

DIGRESSION: Now, I’ve seen Joan in the witness box FOR REAL, and I have to say, she wasn’t thatcompelling. This was when she attempted to follow her sister Jacqui into the world of best-selling bonkbuster novels, and was sued by her publisher for the return of her six-figure advance after she failed to provide them with sufficiently publishable dross (a sample:“‘Don’t call me your little cabbage,’ she said savagely. ‘I’m nobody’s cabbage.'”). Joan, her head inserted into wig styled like freshly whipped soufflé, made a poor witness, mainly because she seemed too profoundly THICK to understand when she was being asked a question, of that she was expected to answer. But in fairness to her, this may have been a deliberate strategy — her best chance of winning the case (she won) was in proving that the publishers got exactly what they deserved when they asked her to knock up a couple of novels. Skeptics may wonder whether Joan is a good enough actress to fool an entire courtroom, but I remind you: she was playing the part of a dumb actress. “Stand still and look stupid” may be equally good advice for the witness box.

DIGRESSION ON DIGRESSION: The best movie star courtroom scene played for real was that of Lana Turner, defending her daughter for knifing well-endowed gangster Johnny Stompanato to death. She gave a real Lana Turner performance, completely artificial from beginning to end and completely convincing to everybody concerned.

The Window

...and KICK!

Schwing!

END OF DIGRESSIONS: Fleischer’s direction only takes off during the scene when Millandfinally gets Collins on his swing. With dizzying, nauseating POV shots, Fleischer shows her ascending to the ceiling and attempting to kick holes in the skylight. We get a glimpse of the campy wallow in bad taste this film could have been if Fleischer had been allowed to report the true story and play to Joan’s strengths. The Fleischer of MANDINGO could have had a ball with that.

Halloween

The movie needs more SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, like the skulls, screen right.