Archive for Charles Coburn

Leftward, ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by dcairns
The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.

How Old Cary Grant?

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2018 by dcairns

The journalist accidentally sent the above query by telegram, not to Cary’s publicist, but to the star himself.

Cary famously replied, OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

Here’s the first entry in our blogathon on late movies, final films: Judy Dean tackles the swan song of Bristol’s finest movie star, Archibald Leach himself. As films about the Tokyo Olympics go (we are nothing if not topical) this may not have the cinematic values of Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD, but it has Cary Grant, damnit.

“Heavy romance on the screen should be played by young people, not middle-aged actors”  (Cary Grant, 1952)

In WALK, DON’T RUN (1966, dir. Charles Walters) a successful English businessman, happily married with grown up children, finds himself in Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics. Arriving ahead of schedule he’s told his hotel room won’t be available for 48 hours and ends up renting a room in the flat of a young single woman. He meets a member of the US Olympic team who’s also looking for accommodation, invites him to share his room and then sets about engineering a romance between his two flatmates.  

It’s a remake of 1943’s THE MORE THE MERRIER (dir. George Stevens) which was set in an overcrowded wartime Washington. WALK DON’T RUN follows its plot very closely, even reproducing some of the sight gags (a drop-down ironing board, trousers propelled out of the window by their braces).

In the original, however, the businessman is played by Charles Coburn and in the remake by Cary Grant, two actors seldom mistaken for each other.

THE MORE THE MERRIER is a sweet, engaging screwball comedy with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a charming and sexy, if somewhat mature, couple and for whom Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, in the same roles, are no match.

What pleasure there is in WALK, DON’T RUN, and there isn’t much, lies in the way Cary Grant subverts the central premise of the film, which is that he is now too old to get the girl and can only act as matchmaker.  The script hammers this home this with a distressing lack of subtlety. In the closing scene, satisfied that the young couple, now married, are about to consummate their relationship, he smiles cheerily and is driven off to fly home to his wife and their silver wedding celebrations. He is passing the baton of love, sex and romance to the next generation. Or not.

Nobody watches THE MORE THE MERRIER wondering if Jean Arthur might fall for Charles Coburn rather than Joel McCrea but in WALK, DON’T RUN, there’s no denying that it’s just possible Samantha Eggar will opt for a man of 60, especially if that man is Cary Grant.  

What the script tries to persuade us to believe is at odds with the evidence of our own eyes. Whether scaling the outside of the apartment building (echoes of TO CATCH A THIEF), showing off his naked body, whistling the theme tunes from CHARADE and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (more reminders of past glories), Grant is on fine form, as dazzlingly handsome, vain and athletic as ever and more than capable of injecting a little life into the leaden dialogue.

But, despite his best efforts, it’s a silly film and with two weak and baffling subplots, some horribly stereotypical jokes about the Japanese and unnecessary coyness about racewalking as an Olympic sport, it must be asked why he decided to do it.

The key seems to lie in his ongoing pursuit of the Oscar that had eluded him for so many years. After being nominated twice for Best Actor, first in 1942 for PENNY SERENADE and then again in 1945 for NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and after losing on both occasions, he boycotted the ceremony for many years until persuaded by Ingrid Bergman in 1957 to collect the award for her role in ANASTASIA on her behalf.  Grant believed, and the argument carries some weight, that the members of the Academy had never forgiven him for his break with the studio contract system. Nevertheless, he’d been hopeful of success with his penultimate film, FATHER GOOSE, in which he’d played a dishevelled, misanthropic drunk and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn’t even nominated. It seems doubtful that, had he won, WALK DON’T RUN would have been made, but he was aware that Charles Coburn had walked away with Best Supporting Actor for the original and no doubt thought the remake might offer a chance to do the same.

As it was, he had to wait until 1970 when, under the presidency of Gregory Peck, an old friend who had set about liberalising the Academy and had campaigned vigorously on Grant’s behalf, he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues”.

One last point.  WALK, DON’T RUN could be read as a gay film and the audience just as easily forgiven for predicting that the two male leads will ride off into the sunset together, given that they not only happily share a very small bedroom but engage in dialogue like this:

“Tokyo’s filled with baths.  They’re all quite nice. Ever try one?  Probably one around here somewhere. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll join you.”

The ensuing scene only gives weight to the theory ~

as does this shot, in which Cary Grant recognises his roommate through binoculars with a shout of “Oh, that’s him!”

JUDY DEAN

Bette Noir

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2018 by dcairns

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.